How Do We Learn About the Ocean?

Once humans discovered that seawater tasted different, felt different, allowed objects to float higher, they began to study the system itself.

The early Greeks, Phoenicians, Egyptians and other seafaring peoples noted the currents, the marine life, and other major components of the ocean system during their sea voyages. The first maps were charts of these journeys. Pythagoras first suggested the Earth was spherical and Eratosthenes was the first to estimate the size of the Earth, which led to the basics of navigation by the stars.

The Polynesians have a long history of celestial navigation coupled with the use of currents and marine life to voyage between the islands of the South Seas.

The European Age of Discovery, from the Vikings through the Spanish, Portuguese, and English ventures, refined the maps, charts and other observational records used for navigating the planet's oceans. The voyages of Columbus and Magellan, despite their sociological impacts, did much to advance the field of navigation.

Voyaging for the sake of science began with the trips of James Cook to the Pacific and the Rosses to the polar regions. The surveys of Matthew Maury discovered the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and Fridtjof Nansen began surveying the deep sea. The U.S. Exploring Expedition began in 1838 produced extensive maps, but it was not until the British Challenger Expedition between 1872 and 1876 that a systematic survey of the earth's oceans was undertaken. This study marked the beginning of a new era in marine study.

The Challenger study sampled for marine life below 550m and discovered 4717 new species. They also measured salinity, temperature, and density measurements in the water samples they collected. The results of the expedition filled 50 printed volumes

Ocean exploration and study increased after Challenger and the turn of the century. Oceanographic institutions evolved during this period as well, with Monaco's Musee Oceanographique (1906) and the U.S. Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory (1888) and Scripps Institution of Oceanography (1912) being some of the first and still the most prestigious.

The U.S. Government has taken on a major position in current ocean-based research. The Department of the Navy conducts extensive oceanographic research. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has several divisions involved in research of various aspects of the oceans. These divisions include the National Ocean Service, the National Weather Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and Sea Grant. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) operates a series of oceanographic and other survey satellites that have brought the study of the global ocean system into the realm of possibility. Click on the highlighted names to connect with their homepages.

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