What is Oceanography?


Oceanography is the study of the deep sea and shallow coastal oceans: biology, chemistry, geology and physics together make oceanography a richly interdisciplinary science. Although they contain most of the Earth's water and carbon and surface heat, and much of its biomass, the oceans do not operate alone. Together with the atmosphere, continents and ice-cover (the cryosphere), they form a working machine, driven mostly by energy from the sun. Lesser amounts of energy derive from tides raised by the moon and sun and planets, and heat from the Earth’s interior.

Oceanographers aim their work at both practical problems and basic scientific discovery. In the area of human health, for example, the oceans provide threats: they spawn and energize storms and hurricanes, endangering coastal populations (more than 1/2 of the worlds' population live within 50 km of the sea). Yet they also provide a bountiful diversity of food, are the reservoir of our water supply and most of the heat and carbon of the climate system, are the source of roughly half the respired oxygen of the biosphere, and contain most of the remaining undiscovered natural pharmaceuticals. The physical climate of Earth, its patterns of temperature, cloud and rain, may be described as an argument between the atmosphere and oceans.
To understand these, techniques of classical physics, chemistry, geology and biology are joined with modern instrumentation and computers.

The Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences offers a Major degree. Students not intending to pursue graduate study but interested in Oceanography can do Majors in Earth and Ocean Sciences comprised mainly of oceanography courses. The Honours programs are recommended for students who wish to go onto graduate study. The Honours program is structured so students will have a solid grounding in one or more of the basic sciences that make up the multidisciplinary field of oceanography.

Why is Oceanography important?


Perhaps the most important observation is that oceanography gives you a world view, an understanding, of the global system that is our environment, which can inspire your work, wherever it leads.

Today, we still need to bring back samples of water from the deep ocean for analysis, but many of our measurements are now electronic; and there are many more things we can measure. Physical variables like temperature and salinity are observed in this way, and there are new probes being designed that will allow electronic measurement of many chemical and biological variables.

What do Oceanographers do?

Not all oceanography is done from ships. Seismology and sub-seabed geophysics are being explored using underwater observatories. Moorings, with steel or Kevlar cable extending from near the ocean surface to its bottom, are laced with instruments that record observations internally, and perhaps relay them to a satellite. And, increasingly, autonomous undersea vehicles (AUVs) propel themselves or drift with currents for years at a time. In the environmentally sensitive coastal ocean and estuaries, "cat-scans" can be done using fast, small boats towing instruments that fly through the water on a carefully controlled course. Meanwhile, acoustic waves are sent down through the water column, and their reflections off small particles in the water give a complete profile of the ocean velocity, from top to bottom.

Arctic oceanographers also have a novel way of doing research: in ice camps near the North Pole. Icebreakers are sometimes involved, but often it is a matter of boring holes in the ice and using helicopters and ski-equipped airplanes to do 'sections' across the Arctic, or to set moorings and autonomous vehicles into action.
The Arctic Ocean is an important part of the climate system, and it is now rapidly changing; it is predicted to lead the world in global warming. Doing research there one is unlikely to get seasick, but one must be wary of polar bears.

Theoretical work in oceanography has the flavor of classical physics, and indeed discoveries by ocean/atmosphere scientists have kindled many sub-fields of physics: for example the science of chaos, which involves the complex behavior of seemingly simple physical systems, arose largely from a simple model of the atmospheric circulation. The solition, a fundamental, nonlinear wave that propagates undistorted over great distances, was discovered in oceanography and now is found in fiber-optics cables, and many physical systems.


Computers play an intense role in physical oceanography, giving us simulations of waves and circulation based on Newtonian dynamics. Ocean and atmosphere are coupled together in climate models and circulation models; the computer models become the meeting point for observations, theory and prediction.

Physical oceanography is involved in many facets of global climate research, and recent observations carried out by oceanographers in the Arctic and sub-Arctic are shedding new light on global warming. The intensification of the fresh-water movement in the atmosphere, land and ocean due to global warming may be driving major changes in ocean circulation.

Techniques of molecular biology are giving us the power to profile the genetics of oceanic biological communities, and explore their evolutionary history. New applications of ocean biology relate to transmission of disease, and fundamental questions about the oceanic food web. The search for extra-terrestrial life; the origins of life on Earth, and general questions about life in extreme environments, are being explored by a diverse population of scientists, involving significantly oceanography.

In ocean geophysics the time development of seafloor processes is being studied with recording instruments, Seismic waves from earthquakes and test explosions probe the structure of the solid Earth, including the special hot spots along mid-ocean ridges where upwelling of heat and magma occurs. Discovery of a large biomass living in hydrothermal systems beneath the sea-bed has suggested new modes for evolution of life on Earth. A study of life in extreme environments, from deep-sea vent waters with temperature ~ 400C, to Arctic algae living in extreme cold, to possible life beneath the icy shell of Europa, one of the many moons of Jupiter. This subject cuts across all the sub-fields of traditional oceanography.

Chemical investigations into the carbon cycle are central to climate research; the fate of carbon dioxide, methane and other trace gases added to the system by human activity, involves exchange across the sea surface and in river outflows. By examining the stratified sediments of the seafloor, and stratified ice layers in Greenland and Antarctica, paleoclimatologists can trace millions of years of climate evolution. Bubbles trapped in the ice give us a 'whiff' of ancient air, and a surprisingly varied and convincing picture of trace gases present. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were greatly reduced during each glaciation, though we do not yet know whether this is a cause or an effect of ice sheets.

There is particular focus in all these disciplines on the coastal ocean, for it is close to much human activity, and is under great stress. The newly developed sensors and vehicles make it possible to observe the ocean. There is a pressing need to get out and do it, as the rising global change are erasing the system as it once was.

Jobs in Oceanography?

Because the nature of oceanography involves the sea, most oceanographers work aboard ship. A great deal of time, however, may also be spent in the laboratory interpreting data. Oceanographic work is carried out in research laboratories, universities, and in industry. Most Ph.D. graduates work in academia, or the research labs which are really a part of academia. This is changing, with a broader spectrum of employment for highly skilled environmental scientists...even as far as the profession of science reporting and writing. A vast majority of undergraduates use their oceanographic training in some way, yet less likely in academic research. Environmental science training can contribute strongly to work in economics, politics, governmental regulatory practice and law. Understanding the scientific method of observation, experimentation and inference is an important part of our program, and is a rare commodity in these professions. Computing skills are intensively developed in oceanography, and these of course can be applied very widely in technical and business-oriented jobs.

There is a widespread need for scientists in industry, commerce or research, who have a strong scientific training including laboratory or computing skills, as well as knowledge about the environment.

Graduates have directly applied their Oceanography training by: obtaining teaching places on MSc and PhD courses; obtaining jobs in industrial research laboratories; obtaining jobs in government research laboratories including the Water Boards and environmental protection agencies. Other Oceanography graduates have applied their degree to obtain a wide range of jobs within Commerce, Education and the Armed Forces.

Career Services


Do you know where your future lies after you graduate from UBC? The question may seem a little premature, but it isn't. The nature of 'employment' and 'careers' is changing rapidly and the successful graduate will be one who learns how to capitalize on the knowledge and skills gained in a degree program in order to secure the type of employment she or he seeks.

A little-known branch of UBC's Student Services is called Career Services. Housed in Brock Hall, Career Services staff can help you prepare for a career after you graduate from UBC. They offer workshops on searching for jobs and on the skills needed to get interviews and make them successful. Students also get access to web-based career resources and on-campus visits by potential employers. Unfortunately, many students make their first contact with Career Services in their last term of fourth year and that's much too late. Don't be one of them!

Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences
2020 - 2207 Main Mall
Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z4
Telephone: 604-822-4198 Maite Maldonado

Advising and Program Approval - Advising is encouraged though not required, for the Major program. Combined Honours programs in Oceanography and another science require formal approval from advisers in both departments. Contact the Oceanography Advisor to arrange an appointment.