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Secrets of the Oceans
Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

Get the facts behind the frame in this online-only gallery. Pick an image and see the photographer’s technical notes.

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Map of El Niño Effects

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By Jennifer Ackerman Photographs by Cary Wolinsky

Riding a wave of new technology, scientists are discovering more of the oceans' secrets, including the integral role the seas play in shaping our climate.

Get a taste for what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

As the R.V. Thomas G. Thompson steams south from San Diego in the winter of 2000, those of us aboard have a personal demonstration of powerful ocean movement. Heavy swells, walls of gray water from a distant storm in the North Pacific, rock and toss the ship, making the greener among us miserable with seasickness. In the computer lab amidships a notice appears on the bulletin board: “Thought problem: What is the distance to the storm that generated this swell?” It’s a good contemplative problem to take the mind off the heaving sea. But the real purpose of this cruise is to probe a more profound motion hidden beneath the endless hurrying forms of foamy waves and flying spray, a big, deep, mysterious movement of immense consequence.

The Thompson, a 274-foot (85-meter) research vessel owned by the United States Navy and operated by the University of Washington School of Oceanography, is headed south to trace the 24th parallel between North America and Hawaii. Its goal: to examine changes in the ocean since a research vessel last tracked this route 15 years earlier.

On the deck of the Thompson waits an impressive suite of oceanographic instruments, all strapped and secured against the roll and pitch of the ship. The Thompson’s main deck is given over to spacious labs humming and buzzing with banks of computers and electronic devices to measure the velocity of currents, read the surface temperature of the sea, fix the speed of wind, probe the seafloor with sound waves, and display in real time the special characteristics of a column of seawater.

Some of the scientists hover about the computer screens, commenting on the sea’s patterns of heat and salt; others are in the laboratories analyzing water samples. The tools and techniques of these scientists may diverge, but their mission is one: to read the movements of water masses traveling around the planet, season to season, decade to decade, century to century and to plumb the profound effects of these, the large-scale motions of the biggest thing on Earth.


Rooted as we are in our firmament of soil, of continent, countryside, city, we easily forget the liquid nature of the planet. Ours is an ocean world, 70 percent water. Over the past few centuries the surface of the sea, its length and breadth, has largely been explored, its regions mapped and named. But the ocean’s third dimension, the unseen world of the deeps, and its fourth, its movements over time, have been difficult to delineate—seas of darkness.

That is beginning to change. With the help of an extraordinary set of new technological “eyes,” oceanographers have begun to pierce the ocean’s opacity, to see beneath its surface and follow its motions through time. Some of these eyes are narrow focus, measuring molecules in a small slug of water to “fingerprint” currents. Others are smart little torpedo-like floats, electronic biographers of seawater that wander the ocean’s paths. Still others are delivering a bird’s-eye perspective, viewing aloft from satellites the whole bulging blue lens of the global ocean, bouncing radar beams off the sea surface to gauge changes. Together these eyes are revealing a physical ocean more complex and changeable than we ever imagined, more like a weather system than a geological one, complete with turbulence, fronts, and strange abyssal storms.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic Magazine.

Should more tax dollars be spent on ocean exploration? Dive into the discussion.

In More to Explore the National Geographic Magazine team shares some of their best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

The idea of ocean circulation, driven by the difference in temperature between the Equator and the Poles, has been known for centuries. Sir Benjamin Thompson* posited in 1797 that evaporation in the north would cause heavier, saltier water to sink and flow southward. He also theorized that a warmer northbound current would be needed to balance the southern one. In the 1920s a German oceanographer, Georg Wüest, charted currents while on the Meteor expedition, a remarkably accurate research cruise spanning the entire North and South Atlantic. By using tracers like dissolved oxygen, as well as measuring salinity and temperature, Wüest deduced flow paths. Then Henry Stommel, the great physical oceanographer, came along in the 1950s and showed how the circulation of the entire world ocean linked together as a single machine.

* Later known as Count Rumford, Thompson invented the drip coffeepot among other things.

Institution Sites

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI)
This site offers information on some of the more than 350 research projects under way at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, including projects on ocean circulation and global climate change. It even has WHOI trading cards.

University of Washington School of Oceanography
Track a PALACE float or check out the other programs run by the University of Washington’s School of Oceanography.

University of Washington PALACE Floats
Here you can look at the formation and circulation of water masses in the North Atlantic and in the East Sea. You’ll see real-time data from PALACE floats, showing temperature, salinity, and the float’s trajectory.

The Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Dive into the research programs of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and check out sea-surface temperatures. The site includes a “Kelpcam” from Birch Aquarium at www.aquarium.ucsd.edu/Aquarium/DiveIn/KelpCam/kelpcamframe.html.

Satellite Monitoring

TOPEX/Poseidon Mission
What kinds of things does the satellite TOPEX/Poseidon help scientists figure out? Take a look at this site for everything from El Niño to the Pacific decadal oscillation.


General Sources

Thurman, Harold V. and Alan Trujillo. Essentials of Oceanography. 6th edition. Prentice Hall, 1999.

Duxbury, Alyn and Alison Duxbury and Keith Sverdrup. World’s Oceans. McGraw Hill, 2000.

Houghton, J.T., L.G. Meira Filho, B.A. Callander, N. Harris, A. Kattenberg, and K. Maskell, eds. Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, 1996.


Kunzig, Robert. “A Thousand Diving Robots,” Discover, April 1996.

Yam, Philip. “The Man Who Would Hear Ocean Temperatures,” Scientific American, January 1995, 38-40.

“A Tribute to Henry Stommel,” Oceanus, vol. 35. Special Issue 1992.

Levitus, Sydney. “Warming of the World Ocean,” Science, Volume 287, 24 March 2000, Vol. 287, 2225-8.

Broecker, Wallace. “Thermohaline Circulation, the Achilles Heel of our Climate System: Will Man-Made CO2 Upset the Current Balance?” Science, November 1997, Vol. 278, 1582-88.

Kerr, Richard. “Warming’s Unpleasant Surprise: Shivering in the Greenhouse?” Science, 10 July 1998, Vol. 281, 156-58.

Calvin, William. “Great Climate Flip-flop,” Atlantic Monthly, January 1998.

Morton, Oliver. “North Atlantic’s El Niño,” New Scientist, 31 January 1998. www.scitec.auckland.ac.nz/~king/Preprints/book/diversit/extra/NaOf/nao.htm

King, Michael D. and David D. Herring. “Monitoring Earth’s Vital Signs,” Scientific American, April 2000.

Colwell, Rita. “Global Climate and the Infectious Disease: The Cholera Paradigm,” Science, 20 December 1996, Vol. 274, 2025-2031.

Williams, Richard G. and Michael J. Fallows. “Eddies Make Ocean Deserts Bloom,” Nature, 16 July 1998, Vol. 394, 288-89.

McGillicuddy, D.J. Jr., et. al. “Influence of Mesoscale Eddies on New Production in the Sargasso Sea,” Nature, 16 July 1998, Vol. 394, 263-65.


Suplee, Curt. “El Niño/La Niña: Nature’s Vicious Cycle.” National Geographic, Mar. 1999, 72-95.

“Forest of the Deep.” National Geographic TV, 1999.

“Earth’s Climate.” National Geographic Society CD-ROM, 1998.

“Geography of the Oceans.” National Geographic Educational film/video, 1998.

“Oceans in Motion.” National Geographic Educational film/video, 1998.

“Cyclone.” National Geographic TV, 1995.

Restless Earth. National Geographic Books, 1997, 1-288.


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