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Oceanography and Society

The ocean dominates Earth's surface and greatly affects daily life. It regulates Earth's climate, plays a critical role in the hydrological cycle, sustains a large portion of Earth's biodiversity, supplies food and mineral resources, constitutes an important medium of national defense, provides an inexpensive means of transportation, is the final destination of many waste products, is a major location of human recreation, and inspires our aesthetic nature.

Today's sense of urgency about ocean studies is precipitated by human impacts on oceanic systems and the need for a better understanding of the ocean's role in controlling global chemical, hydrological, and climate processes. The nation is faced with pressing marine research problems whose timely solution will require increased cooperation between federal agencies and academic scientists. Many of these problems arise from the need to accommodate multiple uses of the ocean and from the ever-increasing concentration of the U.S. population near our coasts. Oceanographic research is important to many of the nation's social concerns, including the following:


The ocean is key to regulating both natural and human-induced changes in the planet. The role of ocean circulation and the coupling of the ocean and atmosphere are basic to understanding Earth's changing climate. Regional events such as El Niño and ocean margin and equatorial upwelling influence climate on both seasonal and longer time scales. Earth's population is now large enough to alter the chemical composition of the ocean and atmosphere and to impact the biological composition of Earth.


The ocean comprises a large portion of Earth's biosphere. It hosts a vast diversity of flora and fauna that are critical to Earth's biogeochemical cycles and that serve as an important source of food and pharmaceuticals. In addition to the exciting discoveries of previously unknown biota near hydrothermal vents, many deep-ocean organisms have evolved under relatively stable conditions. Their unique physiologies and biochemistries have not yet been explored adequately, and methods for sampling the more fragile of these species have been developed only in the past decade. Human influence on marine biota has increased dramatically, threatening the stability of coastal ecosystems. Some species have been overharvested; others have been transported inadvertently to areas where they are not indigenous, sometimes resulting in eleterious effects on native species. Still other species are being cultivated commercially, and aquaculture facilities along coastlines are becoming commonplace in some countries. A better understanding of the ecology of marine organisms is urgently needed to prevent irreversible damage to this living resource.


Waste disposed of in coastal areas has reached the open ocean, with broad ramifications for living resources. This problem is compounded because many marine species harvested for commercial and recreational purposes spend a portion of their lives in coastal waters and estuaries. Thus, local pollution can have far-reaching effects.


Economic prosperity in a global marketplace depends increasingly on technical and scientific applications. There is concern about the ability of the United States to compete with Europe and Asia. Basic and applied research in the marine sciences and engineering is necessary to achieve and maintain a competitive position in a host of fields, including marine biotechnology, aquaculture, hydrocarbon and mineral exploration and production, maritime transportation, fisheries, treatment and disposal of waste, and freshwater extraction.


Unprecedented world political changes are redefining national defense interests and altering research and development priorities. Knowledge of the ocean, especially the acoustic properties of marginal seas and coastal areas, is critical to national defense. Experience gained in 1991 during the war in the Persian Gulf highlights the need for better information related to oceanic and coastal processes and to maritime operations and transportation.


The ocean's energy resources are essential to the national economy and national security. After a decade of relative neglect, energy issues are reemerging. With oil supplies continually threatened by instability in the Middle East and with increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide viewed as a possible trigger of global warming, there is a need to look carefully at a full range of energy sources, from oil and gas in our Exclusive Economic Zone to wave and tidal power and ocean thermal energy conversion. Better knowledge of the ocean and seabed is necessary to exploit responsibly the ocean's untapped petroleum and natural gas resources.


This nation must improve its prediction and response to coastal hazards, both natural and human induced. Hurricanes Hugo and Andrew, two of the strongest hurricanes of the century, devastated parts of the U.S. East Coast. Their impact reinforced the need for better predictive capabilities and a better understanding of coastal storm surges, flooding, erosion, and winds. The exploration for, and production of, petroleum and the transportation of petroleum and chemical products pose risks to the environment when spillage occurs. The movement, effects, and ultimate fates of spilled products must be understood for effective public response. The available information is woefully inadequate, particularly for fragile ecosystems such as coral reefs.

  • Policy decisions concerning these and many other marine research issues require a comprehensive understanding of the science and engineering of the ocean. Federal, state, and local policies should be based on the best available knowledge of how ocean systems work-their biology, chemistry, geology, and physics. Research results must be communicated effectively to policy makers, with gaps and uncertainties stated clearly and fairly. Also, basic understanding must continue to improve.

These excerpts are from Oceanography in the Next Decade, Building New Partnerships, a report of the Ocean Sciences Board of the National Academy of Sciences, 1992.