Oceanography: Exploring Earth’s Final Wilderness

It’s been almost 50 years since I took an oceanography course, so I ordered this course as a refresher. It was a refresher all right, and not just of what I remembered of oceanography — this course covers everything from the history of the Earth to modern-day pollution. As one of my old colleagues at the Geophysical Institute says, “It’s not Planet Earth, it’s planet Cloud-Ocean.”  And this course was a marvelous refresher of the whole of geophysics, core to tropopause, and some biology with the whole thing straightforward enough to be understandable to almost anyone.

It started out conventionally enough, with an overview of the history of oceanic exploration. But many of the observations of the ocean basins demanded explanation. Why did the mid-Atlantic ridge exist, for instance? The Challenger Deep? For that matter, why were island arcs so often paralleled by trenches and home to volcanoes and earthquakes? What were the magnetic stripes discovered during World War II? How was it that the sea floor, which should have been receiving sediments from the continents throughout geologic history, had astonishingly young bedrock when drills began to penetrate those sediments? Some of these questions were touched on 50 years ago, some were hastily swept under the rug, and some (such as the puzzlingly young age of the seafloor bedrock) had not even been discovered yet.

These questions eventually led to the theory of plate tectonics, and several lectures on these DVDs are devoted to explaining this theory and how it came about. But that’s a small part of the first two discs in this set of six.

The physics and chemistry of water take up several lectures. Waves, rogue waves, tsunamis, and tides are covered, along with some of the physics of water. For something so familiar (oxygen and hydrogen are two of the most common reactive elements in the universe) water has some astonishing properties. Not only does it have an extraordinarily high heat capacity and is it very nearly the universal solvent, it is one of the few compounds in which the solid phase is less dense than the liquid. In other words, ice floats! We’re so used to this we don’t even think about it, but the world would be very different if ice sank, as most solids do in their own melts.

Life in the seas is interesting in itself and also critical to feeding our global population. Food webs, plankton, jellyfish, fish, marine mammals and birds and whales all get their moments of exposure, along with fish farming.

Then the course moves on to coasts: estuaries, deltas, beaches and sea cliffs. Life is here, too, from sea grasses and mangroves to coral reefs.

The lectures then cover storms, the deep ocean circulation, and the effects of climate change and pollution.

As a meteorologist I would of course like to have seen more on the role of the oceans in influencing weather. Not only are the oceans the great flywheel of climate, and their slow response one of the problems in climate modeling, they provide much of the water vapor that transports energy around the globe. Still, 36 half hour lectures can’t cover everything. Professor Tobin certainly tried, though, and for a single course succeeded brilliantly.

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