Modern Ocean Exploration: Technology, Institutions & Research

Instructor: Yuanxin (Amy) Yang Alcocer

Amy has a master's degree in secondary education and has taught math at a public charter high school.

The world's oceans are sometimes referred to as the last frontier because there is still so much we don't know about it, especially in deep ocean waters. In this lesson, we'll explore the importance of satellites, robots and the rise of institutions in oceanographic research.

Modern Oceanography

Oceanography is the scientific study of the world's oceans. That include the deep waters all the way to the shorelines. Humans have been interested in this field since we began navigating the seas.

Modern oceanography, on the other hand, began in the late 1800s, and combined several scientific fields together including physics, chemistry, biology and ocean geology. The Challenger Expedition between 1872 and 1876 marks the beginning of modern oceanography, as it gathered oceanic data on animal life, temperatures, water chemistry, seafloor geology, and currents.

Oceanography studies the oceans

So what kind of research do modern oceanographers do?

  • Physical oceanographers research physical events such as tides, water density, and sound transmission under water. This research is useful for submarine travel either for research or for warfare.
  • Chemical oceanographers research the chemical composition of the ocean's waters including major salts and trace elements. Changes in these elements indicate a change in the environment.
  • Marine biologists focus on ocean life, including populations, migration, food sources, ecology and the effects of human interaction.
  • Ocean geologists (aka marine geologists) study and map the ocean floors, analyzing any problems that could affect the shoreline.


Interestingly, modern oceanography isn't always conducted in or near the world's seawaters. Satellites way up in space also play a very important role. These satellites can tell researchers information about the ocean's temperatures, color, and ice cover. The color of water can indicate the occurrence of harmful algae blooms, which can kill sea life and contaminate seafood. Ice cover can tell us about the effects of climate change.

Marine researchers also use the satellites for tracking purposes when marine animals are tagged with a GPS tag. Satellites are also a means of transferring data from one location to another. Data gathered by scientists or robots in the field are transmitted through satellites to receiving computers in oceanography institutions and laboratories.


While people can dive and travel to certain parts of the world's oceans, there are some studies that are too time consuming, dangerous or complicated for people to do themselves. To study these areas, robots are designed and sent to collect samples and video and send back observation data.

For example, in 1999, University of Washington oceanography professor Stephen Riser began building robotic floats that cruise around the oceans to collect various observations such as oxygen levels, pH, and plankton blooms. The floats are sent off on their own and then transmit data every time they resurface.


Because modern oceanography is a multi-disciplinary field, institutions have emerged that bring together professionals from various fields to work together.

The largest independent institution in the US is the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI). It was they that discovered the sunken ship Titanic. WHOI is the most cited in its field in the world.

Other well known institutions include:

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