Why the Ocean?

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To celebrate Ocean Month 2021, we asked staff from across the USGS Coastal and Marine Hazards and Resources Program why they study the ocean, why they love the ocean, and why people should care about the ocean.

This article is part of the April-June 2021 issue of the Sound Waves newsletter.

 

Madelyn Mette

A person with scientific equipment and a laptop computer kneeling on a dock near the water.

Much like geologic time, it is difficult to grasp how wide and how deep the ocean spans relative to the scales we encounter in our daily lives. I am completely awe‐inspired by the magnitude of the ocean that drives our climate and weather in more tangible ways."
-Dr. Madelyn Mette, Physical Geologist, St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center

Photo: Maddie in northern Norway downloading some data from temperature loggers, as part of a project reconstructing sea surface temperature from clam shells.

 

Curt Storlazzi

A man stands on a beach near the water with a cow that has a small dog standing on its back.

Why study the ocean? "To save dollars and lives... whether two-footed or four!"
-Dr. Curt Storlazzi, Research Geologist, Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center

Curt studies hydrodynamics, sediment transport, and geomorphology in coastal and marine environments to understand how coastal and marine ecosystems help protect coastal communities, lives, and infrastructure. Watch this video to learn how the water cycle pulled him into oceanography, and how his personal interests parallel his profession: A Current Immersion 

Photo: Curt stands with some of the local fauna at a research site in Guam (on his birthday!)

 

Kara Doran

A person stands near the ocean with waves in the background wearing a shirt that says, 'USGS.'

“When I was a little girl, I would visit the beach near my grandparent's home. I was amazed at how the waves moved the sand from under my toes when I stood on the shoreline. I'm still fascinated by the ocean and the way the water shapes the beach, especially during storm events!”
-Kara Doran, Oceanographer, St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center

Kara's area of expertise is understanding and forecasting storm impacts to sandy coastlines. Her work includes producing real-time forecasts of coastal total water level and changes to the beach during storms, and measuring how the beach changes after a storm to test and improve these predictions.

Learn more about Kara’s work.

Photo: Kara in her element. Courtesy of Alex McKnight.

 

Lauren Toth

Lauren Toth preparing to drill a coral reef framework core

“The ocean fascinates me because there is always something new to discover. I love having the opportunity to explore the world under the water and help to unlock its mysteries through my research.”
–Dr. Lauren Toth, Research Oceanographer, St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center

Lauren's research focuses on coral reef growth – both modern and over the last 10,000 years. The goal of this research is to determine which combinations of local and global environmental conditions are beneficial or adverse to the growth of coral reefs and to use this information to help guide resource-management decisions.

Learn more about Lauren’s work.

Photo: Lauren Toth preparing to drill a coral reef framework core from Pulaski Shoal, Dry Tortugas National Park.

 

Rangley "RC" Mickey

a person smiles in front of an all terrain vehicle on a beach wearing a backpack

“I am fascinated by the sheer volume and size of Earth's oceans. Most people only see the surface, which hides an environment like no other in our solar system that literally sustains all life on this planet. Without a healthy ocean ecosystem, the world as we know it would not exist. Plus, there are just too many interesting creatures and natural phenomena occurring in the ocean that it is hard not to be fascinated and care about it.”
-RC Mickey, Oceanographer, St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center.

RC studies the ocean as a way to interact with the natural world (and make a living doing so). RC’s work focuses on coastal ecosystems - the boundary between land and sea, and how changes to that boundary such as storm impacts and sea-level rise can affect the lives of humans and other species.

Photo: RC in front of a UTV (utility task vehicle) collecting GPS data for location and elevation of sea turtle crawls and associated beach profiles to understand sea turtle nesting behavior in response to beach renourishment - information that can help advise engineers on how to develop more turtle-friendly nourishment designs.

 

Andrea “Andy” O’Neill

A person crouches over the water handling scientific equipment at dusk with rocks in the background

“The ocean is the closest I can get to an unexplored world, without going into space... I mean, I feel a deep connection to the ocean and its constant rhythms, but when I visit, there's a new discovery or appreciation every time. People should care about the ocean for the same reason we care about the air we breathe and the water we drink - it is an essential part of Life, and the conditions that make it possible everywhere on this planet. No matter where you live, you are impacted by the ocean."
-Andy O’Neill, Oceanographer, Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center

Andy loves the ocean because, “it reminds me that I am small, and the world around me is so vast, graceful, beautiful, and terrifying... So even on bad days when I get caught up in little slights, it remains rumbling and flowing, with forces I can't physically imagine - those little things mean nothing compared to that.”

Learn about Andy's work.

 

Sarah Kwon

A person in a swim cap and goggles in clear blue-green water in front of a tall lighthouse

“I am fascinated by the ocean because I spend so much time in it. It's impossible not to wonder about what's going on around you when you're staring into the water, watching the water quality, organisms, and bottom change as you move offshore. But there's still so much we don't know about our oceans, and I feel lucky that I get to work so closely with the water!”
-Sarah Kwon, Physical Scientist, St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center.

Learn about Sarah’s research.

 

Benjamin "Ben" Norris

A person stands on a boardwalk with a pier and the ocean in the background

Why are you fascinated by the ocean?

"The ocean is a large part of our collective imagery: the ocean and the creatures within inspire us, drive our curiosities, challenge us, and sometimes intimidate us. The depths of the ocean are more impenetrable to humans than the atmosphere and space beyond due to how ill-equipped our bodies at handling high pressures. Perhaps as a result, we have yet to explore the majority of ocean basins, to understand how different physical, chemical, and biological systems function and are interconnected. There is still quite a lot to learn, and discovery is exciting."

Why do you study the ocean?

"As humans we place a lot of social, cultural, and economic value in the ocean. Anyone that has spent enough time at the coast will understand that variations in the wind and wave climate can have dramatic effects on wave energy and coastal erosion. My research is primarily focused on understanding these nearshore processes with the goal of improving our adaptability to changing coastal conditions. One of the main ideas we are testing is whether existing coastal ecosystems, such as coral reefs and mangroves, can be utilized to mitigate hazards while providing other valuable ecosystem services. This approach aims to improve ecosystem functionality and our enjoyment of the coastal environment alike."

Why should people care about the ocean?

"Before we began to study the oceans, it was a widely held belief that the deep oceans were nearly devoid of life—an idea that has now been disproven through a number of technological advancements which have enabled us to see the diversity of life that exists near the seafloor. It is difficult to conceptualize, or properly understand, something before we’ve began to study it. Since the ocean contains a lot of valuable resources for humankind—such as food, minerals, and energy—it is important to study these systems to sustainably use these resources."

Why do you love the ocean?

"I grew up near the coast and spent my summers playing in the sand and waves. When I became a bit older, I first learned to surf, and eventually began surfing competitively by the time I was in high school. This passion dictated where I attended undergraduate and graduate school, and still forms the basis of why I enjoy what I study. Ultimately, I love the ocean for the experiences and lessons it has given me, both from a personal and a scientific perspective."
-Dr. Ben Norris, Research Oceanographer, Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center

Ben's research interests span coastal, estuarine, and riverine settings, with a broad focus on the interplay of hydrodynamics (currents, waves, turbulence), morphodynamics (sediment transport), and coastal ecosystems (mangroves, coral reefs).

Learn more about Ben's research.

 

Nora Nieminski

A person stands on top of a rocky cliff overlooking the ocean

"I am fascinated by how little we know about the ocean and captivated by the infinite discoveries that continue to be made, given that such a relatively small proportion of the ocean has been explored. We can still learn so much about the past, present, and future of our ocean – whether related to climate, biology, or geological processes recorded on the ocean floor."
-Dr. Nora Nieminski, Research Geologist, Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center

Nora studies stratigraphic and tectonic characterization of ocean basins (both modern and ancient). She is currently studying the dispersal of offshore sediment to understand the relationships between submarine mass failure events and sediment supply/source when tectonic or climatic changes impart imbalance on the stability of continental shelves.

Learn more about Nora's research.

 

 

Christie Hegermiler

a person stands on a rocky beach wearing sunglasses and a backpack with an antenna.

“The ocean is important to me because it is a critical system that 1) regulates our planet, 2) provides food, resources, and services for us, 3) is host to fantastic diversity, 4) is awe-inspiring and humbling, and life-dedicating worthy, and 5) makes me feel whole. Whether from a boat, a plane, the beach, or in the water, watching ocean waves and currents move never ceases to leave me with questions!”
-Dr. Christie Hegermiller, Mendenhall Postdoctoral Researcher, Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center

Christie’s work focuses on coastal change (for example: erosion, accretion, and breaching) associated with past, present, and future waves, sea levels, and atmospheric conditions. In particular, she is interested in how waves change beaches. Christie uses numerical models, supplemented by a wide range of ocean and beach observations, to investigate relevant processes and to improve our ability to predict future coastal change.

Learn more about Christie's work.

Photo: Christie gears up to survey beach elevation in Santa Cruz, CA with a precise and accurate GPS unit mounted to her backpack. The GPS unit on her backpack communicates with a nearby "base station" to minimize errors in location.

 

Salme Cook

Staff Profile Picture for Salme Cook

“I love the ocean because it is an example of nature at its best. We rely on it for so many things, most of which we are only recently discovering (in the last few decades...). It is not a coincidence that a majority of the earth's human population live near the coastal ocean. We as a collective society need to understand the ocean and it's biological, chemical, and physical processes because we rely on the ocean, and the ocean relies on us to be good stewards. I study the ocean to be a part of that collective global movement towards understanding and improving how we can sustainably interact with the ocean. On a personal note I love seafood and love to support local and sustainable fisheries!”
-Dr. Salme Cook, Research Oceanographer, Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center

Salme’s research focuses on combining numerical models with oceanographic observational datasets to better understand the hydrodynamics of coastal and estuarine systems. 

Learn more about the work of Salme and her colleagues.

 

Zafer Defne

Staff Profile Picture of Zafer Defne

“When I was a little kid the ocean to me was like the biggest living creature ever. I used to lie down on the beach and listen to each breaking wave like listening to the heartbeats of an imaginary giant. Of course, I had no idea that it would be my day-to-day job when I grew up. There is a lot we can benefit from the ocean and a lot that we should protect against. In the past I had worked on estimating energy potential for conversion from the ocean waves and currents, water quality of semi-enclosed embayments and impacts of coastal storms. Nowadays I contribute to research on coastal wetlands. I am part of a group that uses measurements and ocean models to do that. Models are great tools; they help us create the part of the ocean we study in a virtual environment. We do that by adding up simple physics laws to construct complex systems that agree with the measurements. We can then analyze the past events and make predictions for the future scenarios. So basically, most of my time at work is spent in front of my computer. But still, whenever I get to stand on a beach I sometimes gaze as far as I can and fantasize that I can see the giant under a blanket of waves breathing in and out at each swell. Calm or stormy it is still the most mesmerizing, most enigmatic thing ever for me...”
-Dr. Zafer Defne, Oceanographer, Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center

Zafer's expertise includes computational fluid dynamics and data analysis. His work on numerical modeling of coastal ocean has been used to assess storm surge, residual circulation, sediment transport and water quality, as well as marine renewable energy. His recent research is on assessment of the physical state of coastal wetlands using geospatial data.

Learn more about Zafer's research.