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Why the Ocean?

USGS scientists share brief thoughts about why they have focused their careers on studying our oceans and coasts. Here’s why they study the ocean:

This article is part of the October-November 2020 issue of the Sound Waves newsletter.

A woman in a submarine looks up out a window.
Dr. Jill Bourque on her first dive in the HOV Alvin exploring the Atlantic seafloor at the Norfolk Seep (~1600m), which lies off the Virginia coast. Jill is a biologist with the USGS Wetland and Aquatic Research Center, she says “I am fascinated by the ocean because there are still so many unique animals to be discovered. They are a source for the imagination, and I feel very fortunate to be a part of broadening our understanding of both known and unknown habitats.”Learn about Jill's Benthic Ecology Research.
A woman underwater in scuba gear near corals
Ilsa Kuffner is a Research Marine Biologist with the USGS St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center. Ilsa says, “The ocean covers 71% of Earth’s surface. While only 15% of Earth’s species live in the ocean, one out of four of them lives on a coral reef! But, like many ecosystems on land, coral reefs are an ecosystem in crisis—and they need our help. I study coral reefs to help provide knowledge humans need to make decisions on how best to manage and restore these critical natural resources. Coastal communities throughout the tropics are safer and more economically prosperous with healthy coral reefs than without them.”Visit the USGS Coral Reef Ecosystems Studies (CREST) website for more information.
A woman looks at a clear tube filled with mud in a laboratory.
Jennie McClain-Counts is a biologist with the USGS Wetland and Aquatic Research Center. She is fascinated by the ocean because, “there is still SO MUCH to explore and so many unknowns. During every offshore expedition there is something new to discover or experience. Whether it is whale falls, shipwrecks, bubbling seeps, mussel beds, or expansive deep-sea coral reefs, it’s a constant learning process to try and understand the relationships between animals and habitats. The more we explore, the more we discover how much we don’t know.” Here Jennie examines a sediment push core collected during a deep-sea expedition.Learn about Jennie's Benthic Ecology Research.
A woman stands on a sandy beach near a fence with the water in the background.
Jin-Si Over is a Geographer with the USGS Woods Hole Coastal and Marine Science Center. So, why does she love the ocean? "I love the ocean because without it we wouldn't have the amazing beaches I study and work on. Beaches host nesting grounds for piping plover, sea turtles, and are such a dynamic interface between the oceans and our own homes." Jin-Si works on coastal hazard assessments and forecasts from hurricanes to improve hurricane impact models for coastlines and coastal vulnerability to future storms as well as aid in post-storm recovery efforts.
A woman stands on board the deck of a ship with a life vest and hard hat on.
Julie Richey, Ph.D. leads paleoclimate research at the USGS St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center. Julie loves studying the ocean and the privilege of doing work to contribute to our collective understanding of global climate change, an issue that not only she finds important, but that has broad-reaching societal implications. Here Julie is aboard the R/V Pelican.
A woman in scuba gear emerges from the surface of the water at dusk
Dr. Kimberly Yates is a Research Oceanographer with the USGS St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center. She has been studying ocean acidification for more than 20 years. Kim specializes in carbonate geochemistry and biogeochemistry. She’s a member of the Interagency Working Group on Ocean Acidification, Chair of the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Acidification Network, and a member of the Southeast Ocean and Coastal Acidification Network. When asked why she studies the ocean, Kim states, “I can’t remember ever considering any career other than science. My parents taught me an appreciation of nature and conservation through a very active life of outdoor recreation, especially on the water. I developed an insatiable curiosity about how nature works, and my favorite place was anywhere on or near the ocean. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to pursue a college degree in biology, chemistry, or physics. I discovered that by choosing a career in the earth sciences, I could have a career in all three.”
Three scientists stand on the deck of a ship in safety gear with the ocean and sunset in the background.
Dr. Nancy Prouty (left), a Research Oceanographer at the USGS Pacific Coastal & Marine Science Center says the ocean, particularly the marine life, fascinates her "because it’s a world where I can only visit—I have to use special equipment or instruments to visit this world.  And all marine life is specially adapted to live in this unique place-whether that’s the deep ocean absent of light, or the tidal pools of the nearshore environment." Nancy is shown here on the left working with two graduate students from UC Davis on one of the EXPRESS deep-sea cruises in 2018 on the NOAA Ship Bell M. Shimada.Learn more about Nancy's deep sea exploration research.
Image shows a woman in a lab labeling bottles
Penny McCowen, a biologist with the USGS Wetland and Aquatic Research Center is fascinated by the ocean because, “it contains most of the life on earth, and marine phytoplankton produce the majority of oxygen in the atmosphere. We are so dependent on the health of our oceans, yet we know so little about them. Since such a small proportion of the ocean has been explored, the possibility for amazing discoveries is infinite.” Here Penny prepares vials for seafloor creatures collected during a deep-sea expedition in 2019.