When I attend a middle school or high school career day, I often have a student tell me, “I want to be an oceanographer.” But as we talk more, I realize that what the student really wants to be is a marine biologist. Or sometimes it’s the other way around – the student says “marine biology” when he or she is thinking of oceanography. What’s the difference? Basically, it comes down to this – an oceanographer studies the oceans, a marine biologist studies marine life.
Oceanography is the study of the oceans. Since most of our planet is covered by oceans, that’s a pretty big subject. So oceanographers usually study one of the four basic areas of oceanography:
– Chemical oceanography is the study of seawater composition. This covers how it changes from one area of the ocean to another and what chemical elements and compounds are present that should or should not be there.
– Physical oceanography is the study of the movements of the ocean brought about by wind, tides, waves, currents, and temperature and salinity differences.
– Geological oceanography is the study of the sea floor. It covers the sediments and rocks on the bottom of the ocean, as well as the undersea mountain ranges, sea mounts, volcanoes, earthquakes, hydrothermal vents and other events that take place as the ocean’s crust moves.
– Biological oceanography is the study of the interaction of the plants and animals of the ocean with their environment. This also can be a part of marine biology. However, the biological oceanographer focuses more on how the interaction affects the ocean than the individual organism.
Biological oceanography is the most interdisciplinary area of oceanography. Biological oceanographers want to describe the diversity of marine life, especially in habitats such as the deep sea where so much is still unknown. They use submersibles and remotely operated vehicles.
They also use oceanographic vessels equipped with sonar, GPS, dredges, corers, trawls, plankton nets and other samplers to collect ocean organisms and information on the physical, chemical and geological factors that control their lives.
If you are curious about the natural world, like to solve puzzles, think three-dimensionally and try to figure out how things work, you might want to become an oceanographer.
If you also like to be outdoors (especially at sea) and if you can write clearly (all scientists must write up their research and publish it to make it known to others), you should consider working in this field.
To be in charge of a research project, you will have to go to college and graduate school to get a doctorate in oceanography. As a college or graduate student, you will start going on oceanographic cruises to help your professors with their projects.
There are other careers in oceanography, too. There are opportunities that do not require as many years of school, such as in the Navy and Coast Guard, or as a crew member or technician on a research ship.
Virginia science Standards of Learning: 3.5; 3.6; 4.5; 5.6; LS.7; ES.11.
On the Web
Neptune’s Web: Get the facts on oceanography at this fun site full of information, quizzes and links to related sites.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Ocean Explorer: This is an educational site for you to learn about, discover, and virtually explore the ocean. (http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/)
Marine Bio: Explore the depths of Marine Bio to find out more about marine species, ocean conservation, research and lots more.
Judith Winston is curator of marine biology at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville.
Originally published by WINSTON; Special Correspondent.
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