Most of the planet is covered by ocean and, for this reason, oceanography covers a wider array of topics than many people expect. For thousands of years, since humans first began navigating the waves, understanding the nature of ocean depths, currents, and the relationship of wind to these factors has been crucial. The ability to travel the ocean effectively has been an important influence on discovery, trade, and diplomacy. Understanding the symbiotic relationships of the ocean's ecological, geological, and meteorological phenomena has long been an important part of humankind's survival. Today the study of oceanography encompasses a variety of increasingly intricate and important topics including climate change and the conditions that produce hurricanes.
How did the Vikings undertake the sea voyages that allowed them to raid distant lands? How did ancient Polynesians successfully cross vast waters to populate widely dispersed islands throughout the Pacific Ocean? Why didn't European explorers discover the Americas sooner? The answers to these questions lie in the evolution of seamanship and in the invention and use of tools such as the Mariner's Astrolabe and the Marine Chronometer to improve course navigation. The ability to accurately calculate a ship's longitude and latitude at sea had a profound influence on sea travel. In addition to discoveries of new lands, gaining a better understanding of Earth's oceans influenced trade, war, and diplomatic relations between countries throughout history. Improved understanding of the trade winds had a profound impact on economies worldwide while improvements in ship design and sails, based on better understanding of wind and water, allowed navies to traverse distances with greater speed and safety.
The seemingly chaotic diversity of life in the oceans is in fact a delicately balanced system. Small shifts in the populations of plankton can have dramatic ramifications all along the food chain. As larger fish are unable to find sufficient sustenance the effects can be felt in turn by human communities who experience crises when they lose a source of food and economic health is diminished. Conversely, industrial fishing can have a devastating impact on fish populations that can have severe, unforeseen consequences for the economy and environment. Study of the ocean's ecosystems may prevent or mitigate disasters that occur due to ignorant human influence. Ocean ecosystems have far reaching importance in other ways, too; the coral bleaching occurring now in the Great Barrier Reef is an aspect of worldwide climate change that is already beginning to have a devastating effect. Understanding the effects of pollutants on the oceans is an important step in confronting the challenges presented by climate change.
The ocean exerts influence on and is influenced by weather so study of the ocean is inextricably linked to study of the weather. Tropical cyclones are formed by many factors including ocean temperature and how it relates to atmospheric conditions. Oceanography includes the study of phenomena like “upwelling” and “Ekman transport” that account for changes in ocean temperature. In understanding how temperature is conducted from one part of the ocean to another, oceanography also incorporates aspects of geology including mineralogy and topography.
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