History of Oceanography
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in the 21st Century
Components of a seafloor observatory form the backdrop for a concept of a second-generation
model of WHOIs 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 Earths geological processes
and history. We have learned that oceans play a crucial role in driving and shaping
Earths 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 Earths 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 Earths 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 whats down there
in the ocean and learn whats 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
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.