Oceanographers carry out most of their research in laboratories, and they also work offshore. They collect data provided by research vessels, and by buoys and floats equipped with robotic instruments and mechanisms. Oceanographers can also make use of satellite images, acoustic technology, and seismic records.
In addition to laboratory work, oceanographers also work offshore doing field work, aboard research vessels and offshore platforms. They could go out on a boat to measure the temperature or salinity (salt content) of an ocean, so they can spend six or seven weeks at sea, for example.
In the laboratory, oceanographers use sophisticated technologies to analyze samples. They do mathematical and physical calculations, and use computer systems to model and predict factors such as ocean temperatures, fish migration patterns, and the movement of oil slicks.
There are four main areas of expertise within oceanography:
- Physical oceanography.
- Chemical oceanography.
- Marine biology.
- Geological oceanography.
Most oceanographers specialize in one of these areas. However, many use skills and knowledge from more than one area in their work. Most of the laboratories are staffed by oceanographers of different specialties.
Physical oceanographers study conditions such as temperature, marine density, tides, currents, and waves.
They can apply their knowledge in the oil industry and gas exploration. For example, they study wave heights and tides, and use their results to help decide the appropriate location to build offshore oil platforms.
Physical oceanographers can help locate oil, gas, and mineral resources, above or below the seafloor, by using geophysical techniques, such as seismic surveys.
They apply their knowledge of wave energy to help minimize coastal erosion, and investigate waves and tides as an alternative energy source to fossil fuels.
An important area of research is climate change. The ocean has a great impact on the global climate because the sea stores heat. Understanding the ocean allows oceanographers to work collaboratively with meteorologists to give advice on climate change, global warming, and rising sea levels.
Chemical and geochemical oceanographers research the composition of seawater, sediments, and marine organisms at the bottom of the sea. Chemical oceanographers study the interaction between chemicals in seawater and the environment.
For example, they study the behavior of chemical pollutants and their effects on marine food chains, helping to control and prevent damage to ecosystems.
Tracking the movement of chemicals also helps to understand how ocean currents move seawater.
Oceanographers who specialize in the study of marine biology in all forms of marine life, from plankton to the largest fish and marine mammals. They study the way in which marine organisms develop and interact with each other and with their environment.
They can carry out long-term studies on animal behavior, or on oceanographic processes and their effects on habitats and species.
Some marine biologists apply their knowledge in solving problems, especially those related to the conservation and protection of endangered species. For example, they study fish farming and migration habits to make sure that a particular species is not subjected to abusive fishing that could seriously deplete its population.
Geological oceanographers study the rocks, minerals, and geological processes that occur at the bottom of the sea. His studies help to understand the origins of the Earth and evolution, including the climates of the past.
Geological oceanographers are dedicated to detecting supplies of oil, gas and minerals, and can give advice on the suitability of a particular area for the installation of cables, pipes or tunnels, or for the burial of waste offshore.
Computer models are important to oceanography as they allow oceanographers to create simulations of ocean systems.