What is Ocean Sciences?

The Earth's surface is dominated by a vast interconnected ocean: life originated underwater and the Earth, its ocean, its climate and its organisms have interacted and evolved together over the ages. Humankind has been profoundly influenced by the ocean. Its waters and floor are rich in physical and biological resources. It provides employment for millions of people, acts as a transport route for much of the world's commerce, and accepts vast quantities of waste. Perhaps most of all, it inspires our spirit of adventure and imagination. Sailors, divers, surfers, anyone who has gazed out to sea and wondered know the special sense of awe that the ocean can induce.

The study of the global marine environment

Ocean science is the study of the global marine environment, from the icy wastes of the polar seas to the tranquil lagoons of coral islands: from the still blue depths of the Pacific to the busy and polluted waterway of an urban estuary. Ocean science combines direct observation of this environment with a systematic search for understanding of the processes that control it. So ocean scientists are explorers as well as scientists, and much of the world's ocean is yet to be explored.

Ocean Sciences - a variety of disciplines

Because of the range of scientific knowledge required to understand all of the processes involved, ocean science is usually divided into a variety of disciplines . In fact there is a great deal of overlap between the disciplines, because many aspects of the marine environment are influenced by interacting physical, chemical and biological processes. It is this interdisciplinarity which makes ocean science so exciting. Research cruises and shore-based field expeditions often involve scientists from a range of different scientific backgrounds working together to solve key questions concerning marine environmental phenomena. Success depends on weather conditions and on sophisticated and sometimes temperamental instrumentation. Such expeditions are hard work and often extremely uncomfortable, but also highly stimulating and rewarding.

The disciplines can be divided into physical oceanography (or marine physics), geological oceanography (or marine geology), chemical oceanography (or marine chemistry) and marine biology.

Obeying fundamental physical laws

The ocean obeys fundamental physical laws and physical oceanography is concerned with the mathematical formulations of these laws to describe phenomena in the ocean and to predict how the ocean will respond to future change. The ocean is driven by tides and winds into a dynamic system of turbulent flows: it is warmed by the sun and mixed with freshwater from rivers, rainfall and meltwater. Physical oceanographers want to understand why, where and how the ocean moves. On a local scale this leads to better understanding of waves and tides and their influence on, say, coastal erosion, or on dispersal of contaminants from a polluted estuary. On a larger scale this improves understanding of the interaction between ocean currents and world climate and hence improves our predictions of, say, the impact of global warming on sea level rise. Physical oceanography underpins all of the other disciplines, so all ocean scientists should have some knowledge of physical oceanography.

Chemical oceanography

Chemical oceanography aims to understand the processes that control the concentration and distribution of elements and their compounds in the ocean. Because the ocean is a complex chemical `soup' a variety of sophisticated techniques must be applied to define its composition. The primary chemical constituent is water but numerous other chemicals are also present. Some seawater chemicals exist in such low concentrations that it is a challenge to merely identify their presence, let alone quantify their concentration. Chemical oceanographers are trying to find out which chemicals are beneficial to marine plant life, whether marine organisms produce natural chemicals that can benefit modern civilisation, and how chemicals of environmental concern such as pesticides, petrochemicals, metals and radioactive contaminants behave in the ocean. Chemical oceanography underpins the biochemistry of marine organisms and the geochemistry of marine sedimentary processes.

Geological oceanography

Geological oceanography is concerned with marine sediments. This includes understanding the processes that govern the origin, erosion, transport and deposition of sediments in the ocean. Sediments adsorb water-borne contaminants, provide a habitat for marine organisms, and influence underwater light levels, so both pollutant dispersal and biological production are strongly influenced by their behaviour. Geological oceanography is also concerned with sediment deposits, which can accumulate over millions of years on the ocean floor. These provide a record of past events (such as change in climate and sea level) which help in predicting the environmental consequences of human activity. The physical properties of these deposits determine their load-bearing capacity for offshore installations such as rigs and pipelines. Marine geology is concerned with the processes that shape the ocean basins, determine the structure and composition of the Earth's crust and control features of the continental margins. Marine geologists and geological oceanographers apply a range of geophysical and stratigraphic techniques to probe the secrets of the sediment deposits and the underlying crustal rocks.

Marine biology

Marine biology encompasses many biological disciplines covering the range of organisms found from viruses through to blue whales: microbiologists study the bacteria and fungi; botanists look at the plants of the ocean from single celled algae to giant kelps, and zoologists look at everything from microfauna to crustaceans, molluscs, fish and marine mammals. It is possible to concentrate on a group of organisms, or to look at ecosystems as a whole studying the interaction between groups of organisms and the factors that influence long and short term changes in communities. Marine biologists increasingly rely on ever more sophisticated technology, including molecular and biochemical techniques, chemical analysers and light and electron microscopy. Biological processes are strongly influenced by the chemistry and physics of the ocean: in turn the biology affects both chemical and sedimentary processes. The ocean's biological resources could help to solve the problem of feeding the world's ever increasing population, while marine algae may help to combat the global warming induced by increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Britain's wealth and security

It is recognised at national level that Britain's wealth and security will continue to depend on the sea into the next millennium. Oil and gas extraction, maritime trade, aquaculture and fisheries, strategic defence, renewable energy generation and waste disposal are all important activities underpinned by ocean science. Increasing emphasis on these and other environmental issues is leading to growing opportunities for graduates trained in ocean science, to work either at local level, e.g. on marine and coastal environmental impact assessment, or on a global scale, e.g. to increase marine food reserves or to determine the role of the oceans in climate change. Both single discipline specialists and graduates with a broad range of knowledge will be needed to interact at commercial and government level to provide a rational strategy for ensuring that the ocean remains a rich resource for future generations.

Degree courses taught by the School of Ocean Sciences

Because of the essentially interdisciplinary nature of the subject, all degree courses taught by the School of Ocean Sciences incorporate core courses which provide a basic grounding in physical, chemical, geological and biological oceanography. Most of these degree courses then go on to specialise in one of these disciplines. Students who have already developed a special interest in biology, chemistry, geology or physics can choose Marine Biology or Applied Marine Biology, Marine Chemistry, Geological Oceanography or Physical Oceanography/ Mathematics, respectively. However, some students may wish to pursue a broader-based degree course spanning two or more of the single disciplines, or may be unsure of their preferred specialism at this stage. Students who have a strong interest in biology can combine this with chemical or physical oceanography in Marine Biology/Oceanography, while those who are more interested in physical science can choose Ocean Science, which offers a wide choice of course options across the full range of disciplines.