History of Oceanography
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Oceanography in the 21st Century
Inner Space Exploration


Components of a seafloor observatory form the backdrop for a concept of a second-generation model of WHOI’s Autonomous Benthic Explorer (ABE). Such autonomous underwater vehicles will play important roles in ocean observatories, with the capacity to upload power and download data from underwater observatory docking stations. (Illustration by E. Paul Oberlander)

Most of the major discoveries in oceanography have occurred only within the last 50 years. We have found that while rocks and sediments on land are usually wiped away by weather and erosion, rocks and sediments on the seafloor are a well-preserved archive of information that allows us to unravel Earth’s geological processes and history. We have learned that oceans play a crucial role in driving and shaping Earth’s atmosphere and climate. We have discovered hydrothermal vents on mid-ocean ridge crests, which support previously unimagined ecosystems and exotic communities of life. Heat from the Earth’s interior, rather than the sun, supports these life forms, which may hold clues to the origin of life on Earth and possibly to life on other planetary bodies.

The oceans cover 71% of Earth’s surface, and so far we have only studied a very small percentage of the ocean floor and the global ocean. Many new discoveries await us as we use new instruments and deep submergence vehicles to explore “inner space” in the 21st century.

In the future, oceanographers want to go beyond learning what’s down there in the ocean and learn what’s going on down there. They want to observe oceans processes that change over days, weeks, seasons, years or decades. But it is difficult and expensive to send research ships back to the same sites for repeat measurement. Sometimes rough seas and stormy weather make it impossible to send ships to certain parts of the oceans at certain times.

Today oceanographers are launching a new era of ocean exploration. They want to establish long-term ocean floor observatories with arrays of sensors and instruments that make continuous measurements of various ocean properties and events. Data from the observatories will be sent to shored-based laboratories via submerged fiber-optic cables or via cables linked to moored buoys that can transmit data via satellite. The data can then be made available via the Internet.

ABE II
The Autonomous Benthic Explorer (ABE) is an AUV developed by the Deep Submergence Lab of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. ABE has been used to create some of the most detailed maps and images of seafloor terrain on the Juan de Fuca Ridge and southern East Pacific Rise during field experiments over the past few years.

Oceanographers will use different types of remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) that can “fly” in the oceans or along the seafloor, collecting measurements. The data can be downloaded when the AUVs surface, or when they dock at an underwater docking site and download data there. Oceanographers are also developing instrumented buoys moored thousands of miles from shore, and free-floating drifting instruments that can transmit data to scientists in their laboratories using satellites and the Internet.

Ocean observatories will greatly extend oceanographers’ reach, allowing scientists to make more measurements over larger areas of the oceans over longer periods of time.