An oceanographer studies the physical processes that occur in the sea. Oceanography includes marine chemistry, marine geology, physics, and biology. Physical oceanography is the study of the sea’s interactions with the atmosphere and Earth, including tides, weather, and climate. Chemical oceanography is the study of the chemical composition of ocean water and sediments, and the effects of pollution. Geological oceanography is the study of the sea floor both past and present, including its mountains, volcanoes, canyons, vents, and deposits of natural resources such as natural gas and oil. To work as an oceanographer, you will need a Master’s or Ph.D. in one of these subject areas. You can get started by earning a Bachelor’s degree in a physical or biological science. [See also Marine Biology.]

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Oceanographer in Action

Ruth Curry

Title: Oceanographer, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Education: B.S., Geology, Brown University

For Ruth Curry, spending time on the ocean waves has nothing to do with surfing or vacationing. She spends her time studying the ocean currents that affect our lives each day. Ruth Curry is an oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, an organization of scientists who research and study how the ocean affects the global environment.

Curry’s research focuses on the North Atlantic circulation and the currents that carry warm waters from tropical regions northward. As these warm waters reach higher latitudes, they release heat that warms the air above them and warms the climate of western Europe. As warm water cools, its density increases and it sinks to the bottom of the ocean. There it begins a southward journey back to the tropics. This conveyor belt of water plays an important role in maintaining Earth’s climate. Normally, the salinity, or saltiness, of ocean water stays about the same. But changes in global temperatures are melting large sheets of ice in Greenland, which is introducing large amounts of fresh water into the ocean. This fresh water is diluting the ocean water, making it less salty. A decrease in salinity makes ocean waters less dense and prevents them from sinking to the bottom of the ocean. Eventually, the melting of ice sheets in Greenland could cause the North Atlantic currents to slow and eventually stop, leading to dramatic changes in the Northern Hemisphere’s climate.