|The Oceanic Circle - Governing the Seas as a Global Resource (UNU, 1998, 257 pages)|
|1. Ocean perspectives: physical|
But the real beginning of modern oceanography is of very recent date, just a little over a century ago. Edward Forbes, a British biologist who studied marine animals and died in 1854, and Matthew Fontaine Maury, a US naval officer who studied currents, tides and wind systems and died in 1873, are considered by some as the fathers of oceanography, biological and physical. But the real impetus to modern oceanography came from the famous global cruise of HMS Challenger (1872-1876). It took the scientists of the Challenger -or the "philosophers," as they were called by the navy crew - 10 years after the end of their voyage to complete the 50 thick volumes presenting the results of this first major oceanographic cruise. The report discussed with full detail of text and illustrations the currents, temperatures, depths and constituents of the oceans, the topography of the bottom, the geology and biology of its covering and the animal life of the abyssal waters. That they could do this with the rudimentary technology at their disposal at the time seems almost miraculous. That which is achieved now with power winches, piston corers, and remote-controlled "boomerangs," they accomplished with hand-driven winches, lead lines, and baskets. In the mid-Pacific, they lifted manganese nodules from a depth of 5,000 metres, analysed their composition, configured their density and distribution, and made wild and wonderful guesses about their origin. Their computers they carried in their heads. Their navigational aids consisted of a compass, a chronometer (clock), and a quadrant; the pictures of the ocean's flora and fauna, produced today by deep-towed television and photo cameras, they etched with pencil and watercolour. One wonders whether human ingenuity is at its best producing high technology or obtaining the most complex and imposing results by the simplest means.
Since that time, oceanography has grown, expanded, and diversified at an astonishing rate. The development of acoustic, seismic, and optical sensors, magnetology, radioactive fossil dating, remote sensing, deep-sea drilling technology, the construction of deep-sea submersibles as well as satellite technology, microelectronics and computerized data processing, have made it possible to monitor large ocean areas in real time and to penetrate the ocean depths, right down to the ocean floor and its subsoil, through strata upon strata of sediments and basaltic rock, to the molten core of the planet earth.
The creative combination of in situ measurements, computer modelling and remote sensing will determine the future development of oceanography.2
Using computer modelling technology developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, combined with satellite measurements of sea-surface undulations with subsurface acoustic measurements of how sound travels through bodies of water, a team of MIT scientists has recently come up with a description of the circulation in the Western Mediterranean which may enhance our understanding of the ocean's impact on climate.3 In cooperation with scientists from Germany and Australia, the team is planning to apply the same methodology, on a larger scale, to the Pacific Ocean, where processes are operating which appear to be slowing, or even regulating, global warming trends. According to scientists of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Observatory, a naturally occurring air-ocean circulation system in the tropical Pacific has sped up the redistribution of heat to regions where it dissipates more easily.4 The Pacific's cooling effect may explain why global temperatures in this century have risen only half as much as models predicted.
The new technologies have enabled us to reconstruct the evolution and transformation of ocean basins, to document with empirical data the theory of tectonic plates and continental drift, which has literally revolutionized our understanding of the history of the earth, including the ways in which plants and animals have evolved and been distributed over the oceans and continents. Plate tectonics, in a way, reveals to us that creation has not been a once-and-for-all happening but that it is an ongoing process regenerating and recycling the earth and its resources over eons, manifesting the many dimensions of the majesty of the oceanic circle. It is an awesome spectacle: in space and in time.