What is Oceanography? - Definition, History & Facts

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  • 0:02 Oceanography
  • 1:10 History of Oceanography
  • 3:03 Oceanic Facts & Oceanography
  • 4:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amanda Fay
While over 70% of the earth is covered by the oceans, much of it remains a mystery. Its immense size and depth entice scientists to uncover these mysteries. In this lesson, you'll learn about oceanography, the field that studies the world's oceans.


Did you know that phytoplankton, sea weeds, and other sea plants living in the ocean produce about 50% of the oxygen we breathe? Through oceanography, we've learned some amazing facts about the ocean, though there are still many questions to answer, like how many species of plants and animals actually exist in the world's oceans. Oceanography is the study of the world's oceans, including aspects of its biology, chemistry, physics, geology, and meteorology, among many others.

For example, chemical oceanographers study the composition of seawater and the chemical interaction of seawater with the atmosphere and sea floor. Biological oceanographers study plants and animals in the marine environment. Geological oceanographers explore the ocean floor and the processes that form its mountains, canyons, and valleys. Physical oceanographers study the physical processes in the ocean, including waves, tides, currents, eddies, and the interactions with the atmosphere. In fact, ocean scientists and their tools have advanced so much that they can even measure the temperature, depth, and salinity of the oceans from space using satellites!

History of Oceanography

Humans have been interested in the oceans since pre-historic times when people would venture out from their homes along the coast on rafts. Around 2,000 to 3,000 years ago, naturalists and philosophers, including Aristotle, began to try to study and understand the vast bodies of water. However, the modern field of oceanography did not emerge until late in the 19th century when America, Britain, and Europe joined together to fund expeditions to explore ocean currents, the seafloor, and the life that thrived within the ocean.

The first organized, scientific outing to explore the world's oceans and seafloor was the Challenger Expedition, which was onboard a three-mast British warship in 1872 that circumnavigated the earth. During World War II, the potential to gain an advantage in submarine warfare spiked a further increase in interest in understanding the oceans.

Sir John Murray, a Scottish scientist during the late 1800s, is considered the father of the field of oceanography and was the first to coin the term oceanography. He participated in the Challenger Expedition as an assistant and was the first to note the existence of oceanic trenches.

Despite many years of study, our knowledge of the ocean is confined to the top couple miles of the ocean. It's often predicted that for every one species of marine life we have identified, there are three more that we have yet to discover; that would mean we only know about 25% of the things living in the ocean! However, research vessels are constantly exploring the ocean, taking samples and measurements, and comparing their data to previous measurements to understand how things are changing. Computer models are also an integral part of modern oceanography; since we'll never be able to sample the entire ocean, models are developed using complex math equations to predict what the ocean currently looks like and how it may change in the future.

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