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how we study the ocean
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evolution of oceanography

How We Study the Ocean
- The Physical Sciences

Seafarers have been observing patterns in the ocean and forming theories for 5,000 years, but modern-day oceanographers are taking ocean science much further. Due to the advances in scientific study and with the help of technology, scientists are now able to analyze the ocean's composition, explore the ocean floor at its deepest and monitor its every movement.



Chemistry of the Ocean: Getting Down to the Molecular Level

What are the properties of ocean water that support life? What happens to water molecules when they absorb energy from the sun? Is the chemical composition of the ocean uniform around the planet and if not, why? These are some of the many questions that chemical oceanographers are trying to answer.

arrowdarkGreen1 More than H20
Seawater is a dynamic chemical environment that interacts constantly with the land, the atmosphere, and living things. For example, we know that ocean water is a mixture of water and dissolved substances (as anyone who has ever accidentally swallowed some could tell you). Roughly 96.5% of it is made up of water molecules (H20). Most of the remaining 3.5% percent is comprised of a combination of solutes such as salt (NaCl) and calcium carbonate (CaC03) absorbed from the ocean floor and oxygen (O2) absorbed after plants expel it as waste during photosynthesis. When water is evaporated into the air, salt molecules stay behind, causing higher salinity at the surface. But ocean water that is high in salinity has a higher density. Water that is more dense is heavier, and so it sinks to the bottom, causing the ocean's water to turn over. When large masses of water move, a current is created.



Geology of the Ocean: Mapping the Ocean Floor and Shoreline

How deep is the ocean? What does the ocean floor look like and is it changing over time? Why are there islands in the middle of the Atlantic? Ocean geologists are finding startling and fascinating answers about our planet as they descend to depths that were once impossible to explore.

arrowdarkGreen2 Not So Solid Land
The earth's crust provides the container for the ocean and, as a result, is constantly exerting its influence on its chemical composition and marine life. For example, in 1912 the German meteorologist Alfred Wegener hypothesized that the continents are moving over time and once upon a time they fit together as one. In the 1950s, satellite photos confirmed his hypothesis. By now we know the continents move one centimeter a year in such a way that the Atlantic Ocean is getting bigger and the Pacific smaller. Using research vessels equipped with sonar, scientists have mapped the ocean floor and found that continental drift is caused by a giant crack in the middle of the Atlantic, called the mid-ocean ridge. Magma, molten mass from the earth's core, is slowly leaking out above the earth's crust. When the hot magma bubbles out it adds to the ocean floor and pushes the continents apart. As the ocean floor changes, canyons, trenches or even islands form. As structures in the sea change, ecosystems change. And as ecosystems change, marine life adapts.



Physics of the Ocean: Tracking Currents, Waves, Tides
Why is the water off England's shores warmer than in the water off Maine's, even though Maine is further south? Why is the water at one beach rough while at others it is calm? How many hurricanes should we expect this year? By describing the ocean's movement, physical oceanographers hope to develop predictive models and learn more about the influence of the atmosphere above the ocean on the ocean's movement itself.

arrowdarkGreen1a Pushing and Pulling
The ocean is in constant movement, affecting the marine life it supports and exerting pressure on the shoreline. For example, when the wind blows, it pushes on the ocean surface, causing the water to lift and creating waves. A steady wind causes a series of waves, or a wave train. The speed of the wind, the length of time it blows, and the distance over which it blows affects the size and speed of the waves. When a wave approaches the shore, the bottom of the wave slows due to friction with the ocean floor, decreasing its wavelength. The water on the top of the wave is now moving faster than the bottom and it pitches forward, causing the wave to break upon the beach. When a wave breaks on the beach, it deposits sediments from the water onto the shore. At the same time, it dislodges sand and sediments from the shore and pulls them back into the ocean. The shore and ocean are in a constant give and take.



How does the COOLroom help us understand this better?
By designating an area of the ocean off New Jersey for thorough study, research, and analysis by all fields of marine science, the scientists in the COOLroom will increase oceanographic knowledge. The COOLroom has been set up so all the collected knowledge can reside in one place on the world wide web so that hundreds of scientists are able to collaborate and share their learning. With so many resources and instruments together, scientists are able to observe the ocean from more angles than ever before. And so, our understanding of the ocean and our planet is enhanced.

Learn more about the scientists who are collaborating to expand our knowledge of the seas.

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