Ocean Literacy Defined and Essential
Principles of Ocean Literacy
The National Marine Educators Association, NOAA Office
of Education, Centers for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence, National Geographic
Society, and College of Exploration have produced a document defining ocean
literacy and the essential principles and fundamental concepts that all students
ought to know about the ocean. The document, Ocean
Literacy, The Essential Principles of Ocean Science, is available through
the College of Exploration. The document is the work of a twenty-two scientists
and educators with the help of many others.
The following information is taken directly from Ocean
Literacy, The Essential Principles of Ocean Science.
Ocean Literacy Definition
Ocean literacy is an understanding of the oceans influence
on you and your influence on the ocean. An ocean-literate person understands:
- the essential principles and fundamental concepts,
- can communicate about the oceans in a meaningful way,
- is able to make informed and responsible decisions regarding the oceans
and its resources.
- The Earth has one big ocean with many features.
- The ocean is the dominant physical
feature on our planet Earth—covering approximately 70% of the planet’s
surface. There is one
ocean with many ocean basins, such as the North Pacific, South
Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic, Indian and Arctic.
- An ocean
basin’s size, shape and features (such as islands,
trenches, mid-ocean ridges, rift valleys) vary due to the
movement of Earth’s lithospheric plates. Earth’s highest
deepest valleys and flattest vast plains are all in the ocean.
the ocean there is one interconnected circulation
system powered by wind, tides, the force of the Earth’s rotation
(Coriolis effect), the Sun, and water density differences. The
shape of ocean basins and adjacent land masses influence the
path of circulation.
- Sea level is the average height of the ocean relative
to the land,
taking into account the differences caused by tides. Sea level
changes as plate tectonics cause the volume of ocean basins and
the height of the land to change. It changes as ice caps on land
melt or grow. It also changes as sea water expands and
contracts when ocean water warms and cools.
- Most of Earth’s water
(97%) is in the ocean. Seawater has unique properties: it is saline,
its freezing point is slightly lower than fresh water, its density
is slightly higher, its electrical conductivity is much higher, and
it is slightly basic. The salt in seawater comes from eroding land,
volcanic emissions, reactions at the sea floor, and atmospheric deposition.
- The ocean is an integral part
of the water cycle and is connected to all of the earth’s water
reservoirs via evaporation and precipitation processes.
- The ocean is connected to major lakes, watersheds and
waterways because all major watersheds on Earth drain to the
ocean. Rivers and streams transport nutrients, salts, sediments
and pollutants from watersheds to estuaries and to the ocean.
- Although the ocean is large, it is finite and resources are limited.
- The ocean and life in the ocean shape the features of the Earth.
- Many earth materials and geochemical cycles originate in the
ocean. Many of the sedimentary rocks now exposed on land
were formed in the ocean. Ocean life laid down the vast volume
of siliceous and carbonate rocks.
- Sea level changes over time have expanded and contracted
continental shelves, created and destroyed inland seas, and
shaped the surface of land.
- Erosion—the wearing away of rock, soil and other biotic and
abiotic earth materials—occurs in coastal areas as wind, waves,
and currents in rivers and the ocean move sediments.
- Sand consists of tiny bits of animals, plants, rocks
and minerals. Most beach sand is eroded from land sources and carried
to the coast by rivers, but sand is also eroded from coastal sources
by surf. Sand is redistributed by waves and coastal currents
- Tectonic activity, sea level changes, and force of waves influence
the physical structure and landforms of the coast.
- The ocean is a major influence on weather and climate.
- The ocean controls weather
and climate by dominating Earth’s energy, water and carbon systems.
- The ocean absorbs much of the solar radiation reaching
Earth. The ocean loses heat by evaporation. This heat loss drives
atmospheric circulation when, after it is released into
atmosphere as water vapor, it condenses and forms rain.
Condensation of water evaporated from warm seas provides
energy for hurricanes and cyclones.
- The El Niño Southern
Oscillation causes important changes global weather patterns because
it changes the way released to the atmosphere in the Pacific.
- Most rain that falls on land originally evaporated
from tropical ocean.
- The ocean dominates the
cycle. Half the productivity on Earth takes place in the sunlit layers
and the ocean absorbs roughly half of all carbon dioxide
to the atmosphere.
- The ocean has had, and will continue to have, a
significant influence on climate change by absorbing, storing, and
heat, carbon and water.
- Changes in the ocean’s
circulation have produced large,
changes in climate during the last 50,000 years.
- The ocean makes Earth habitable.
- Most of the oxygen in the atmosphere originally
came from the activities of photosynthetic organisms in the ocean.
- The first life is thought to have started in the
ocean. The earliest evidence of life is found in the ocean.
- The ocean supports a great diversity of life and ecosystems.
- Ocean life ranges in size from the smallest virus to the largest
animal that has lived on Earth, the blue whale.
- Most life in the ocean exists as microbes. Microbes are the most
important primary producers in the ocean. Not only are they the
most abundant life form in the ocean, they have extremely fast
growth rates and life cycles.
- Some major groups are found exclusively in the ocean. The
diversity of major groups of organisms is much greater in the
ocean than on land.
- Ocean biology provides many unique examples of life cycles,
adaptations and important relationships among organisms (such
as symbiosis, predator-prey dynamics and energy transfer) that
do not occur on land.
- The ocean is three-dimensional, offering vast living
space and diverse habitats from the surface through the water column
to the sea floor. Most of the living space on Earth is in the ocean.
- Ocean habitats are defined
by environmental factors. Due to interactions of abiotic factors such
as salinity, temperature, oxygen, pH, light, nutrients, pressure, substrate
and circulation, ocean life is not evenly distributed temporally or
spatially, i.e., it
is “patchy”. Some regions of the ocean support more diverse
and abundant life than anywhere on Earth, while much of the
ocean is considered a desert.
- There are deep ocean ecosystems that are independent
of energy from sunlight and photosynthetic organisms.
Hydrothermal vents, submarine hot springs, and methane cold
seeps rely only on chemical energy and chemosynthetic
organisms to support life.
- Tides, waves and predation cause vertical zonation patterns
along the shore, influencing the distribution and diversity
- Estuaries provide important and productive nursery
many marine and aquatic species.
- The ocean and humans are inextricably interconnected.
- The ocean affects every human
life. It supplies freshwater (most rain comes from the ocean) and over
half of Earth’s oxygen. It
moderates the Earth’s climate, influences our weather, and
affects human health.
- From the ocean we get foods,
medicines, and mineral and energy resources. In addition, it provides
jobs, supports our nation’s economy, serves as a highway for
transportation of goods and people, and plays a role in national security.
- The ocean is a source of inspiration, recreation, rejuvenation
discovery. It is also an important element in the heritage of
- Much of the world’s
population lives in coastal areas.
- Humans affect the ocean in a variety of ways. Laws, regulations
and resource management affect what is taken out and put into
the ocean. Human development and activity leads to pollution
(such as point source, non-point source, and noise pollution) and
physical modifications (such as changes to beaches, shores and
rivers). In addition, humans have removed most of the large
vertebrates from the ocean.
- Coastal regions are susceptible to natural hazards (such as
tsunamis, hurricanes, cyclones, sea level change, and storm
- Everyone is responsible for caring for the ocean. The ocean
sustains life on Earth and humans must live in ways that sustain
the ocean. Individual and collective actions are needed to
effectively manage ocean resources for all.
- The ocean is largely unexplored.
- The ocean is the last and largest
unexplored place on Earth—less
than 5% of it has been explored. This is the great frontier for the
next generation’s explorers and researchers, where they will find
great opportunities for inquiry and investigation.
- Understanding the ocean is more than a matter of curiosity.
Exploration, inquiry and study are required to better understand
ocean systems and processes.
- Over the last 40 years, use of ocean resources has increased
significantly, therefore the future sustainability of ocean
resources depends on our understanding of those resources and
their potential and limitations.
- New technologies, sensors and tools are expanding our ability to
explore the ocean. Ocean scientists are relying more and more
on satellites, drifters, buoys, subsea observatories and
- Use of mathematical models
is now an essential part of ocean sciences. Models help us understand
the complexity of the ocean and of its interaction with Earth’s
climate. They process observations and help describe the interactions
- Ocean exploration is truly interdisciplinary. It
requires close collaboration among biologists, chemists, climatologists,
computer programmers, engineers, geologists, meteorologists,
and physicists, and new ways of thinking.
This guide is the product of a two-week online discussion
in October 2004
and extensive follow-up communications among some 100 members of the
ocean sciences and education communities. Sponsored by the National
Geographic Society's Oceans for Life Initiative (NGS) and the National
Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), organizers included NGS,
NOAA, the Centers for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence (COSEE) and
the National Marine Educators Association (NMEA). Hosted by the College of
Exploration Conference Center, the workshop was also endorsed by the
Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and The Ocean Project. The
workshop was planned and coordinated by Francesca Cava, National
Geographic Society; Sarah Schoedinger, NOAA; Craig Strang, Lawrence Hall
of Science, UC Berkeley; and Peter Tuddenham, College of Exploration. In
addition to all those who participated in the online workshop, the following
people made significant contributions to the development and preliminary
review of this document:
- Alice Alldredge, University of California, Santa Barbara;
- Lincoln Bergman, Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California,
- Francesca Cava, National Geographic Society;
- Bob Chen, University of Massachusetts-Boston;
- Jennifer Cherrier, Florida A&M
- John Farrington, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution;
- Steve Gaines, University of California, Santa Barbara;
Gary Griggs, University of California, Santa Cruz;
- Catherine Halversen; Lawrence Hall of Science, University of
- Beth Jewell, West Springfield High School;
- Judy Lemus, University of Southern California;
- Mellie Lewis, Altholton Elementary School;
George Matsumoto, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute;
- Chris Parsons, Wordcraft;
- Carolyn Randolph, South Carolina Education Association;
- Sarah Schoedinger, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration;
- Sally Goetz Shuler, National Science Resources Center;
- Susan Snyder, National Marine Educators Association;
- Elizabeth K. Stage, Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California,
- Craig Strang, Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California,
- Bob Stewart, Texas A&M University;
- Peter Tuddenham, College of Exploration.
6 January, 2009