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Oceanography: Exploring Earth's Final Wilderness

Oceanography: Exploring Earth's Final Wilderness

Professor Harold J. Tobin Ph.D.
University of Wisconsin, Madison
Course No.  1730
Course No.  1730
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Course Overview

About This Course

36 lectures  |  32 minutes per lecture

Earth's ocean is a source of wonder, delight, sustenance, economic benefit, and awe in the face of its overwhelming mystery and power. It dominates the natural world in ways that scientists are only now beginning to understand. And although we call our home planet Earth, it would be more accurate to name it Ocean, since 71% of the globe is covered with water, and beneath the waves churn forces that make our world unique in the solar system:

  • Along mid-ocean ridges, lava flows from Earth's interior, forming new oceanic crust and driving the formation and movement of continents via the crucial process of plate tectonics.
  • The ocean's tremendous mass and thermal inertia serve as a climate control thermostat, moderating temperatures and making the planet habitable.
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Earth's ocean is a source of wonder, delight, sustenance, economic benefit, and awe in the face of its overwhelming mystery and power. It dominates the natural world in ways that scientists are only now beginning to understand. And although we call our home planet Earth, it would be more accurate to name it Ocean, since 71% of the globe is covered with water, and beneath the waves churn forces that make our world unique in the solar system:

  • Along mid-ocean ridges, lava flows from Earth's interior, forming new oceanic crust and driving the formation and movement of continents via the crucial process of plate tectonics.
  • The ocean's tremendous mass and thermal inertia serve as a climate control thermostat, moderating temperatures and making the planet habitable.
  • Life began in the ocean and was exclusively marine for billions of years; we owe our oxygen-rich atmosphere to the photosynthetic activity of oceanic organisms.

But for all its importance, the ocean hides its secrets, and it is only with the advent of new sounding and sampling techniques, satellite sensors, and deep sea submersibles that its riddles are being solved, shedding light on a domain that is breathtaking in its complexity and beauty.

Oceanography: Exploring Earth's Final Wilderness takes you on a scientific expedition to fathom the ocean's mysteries in 36 intensively illustrated half-hour lectures delivered by ocean scientist and Professor Harold J. Tobin of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, a researcher who has visited and mapped landscapes on the seabed that no human eyes had ever seen before.

Oceanography encompasses a wide range of fields, from biology and ecology, to geology, meteorology, chemistry, physics, and ocean engineering. No background in science is needed to follow these lectures, which provide a thorough appreciation for the ocean as a system that is arguably more intricate and fascinating than the continents, not least because it is a world that is fully three-dimensional, from the tidal zone to the deepest point on the ocean floor.

Piecing Together the Puzzle of the Ocean

Professor Tobin compares the exciting discoveries in oceanography in the past half-century to the exploration of a previously unknown planet. Scientists have been amazed again and again at what they've learned about the world beneath the waves. In these compelling lectures, you relive those discoveries, assembling the many pieces of the puzzle to gain a comprehensive picture of how the ocean works and how it affects the atmosphere, continents, and the web of life.

Among the discoveries you learn about are these:

  • New crust: Geologists once assumed that the ocean was a catch basin for sediments accumulating almost since Earth began. Instead, the seafloor is in a continual process of renewal and has the youngest rocks on the planet, far younger than rocks on land or even the water in the ocean itself.
  • Alien-like organisms: Biologists long believed that life could not exist at great depths. But not only does it exist, it flourishes in the utter darkness, cold, and high pressure of the deep sea in fantastic forms fit for a science fiction movie.
  • Living off Earth: Until recently, all life on Earth could be traced to photosynthetic processes drawing energy from the sun. But that was before the discovery of deep sea thermal vents, where organisms thrive on the primordial energy of the planet.
  • Rogue waves: Accounts of 100-foot-high "rogue" waves in the open ocean were long dismissed as physically impossible sailors' yarns. However, satellite and other measurements show that they occur and account for many ships that go missing.

Above all, you will learn to see the ocean as a single entity of striking complexity. Despite the names we have assigned to different regions of the ocean—Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, Arctic—they are all one continuous body of water, dominating the planet with features such as mid-ocean ridges that encircle the globe like the seams on a baseball.

A Story of Pure Exploration

The ocean is a huge subject, and you begin Oceanography by taking stock of the vast scope of the discipline. "This story is one of pure exploration," says Professor Tobin, and he approaches it by breaking the field down into its most important themes. First, he reviews the history of ocean exploration, before moving on to the topography of the seabed and how it is mapped. Diving deeper, he covers

  • the variety of habitats for ocean organisms;
  • the role of plate tectonics in creating and destroying the seafloor;
  • the origins of the ocean and life;
  • the sediments on the seabed and the conditions that produce oil and gas;
  • the reason that the sea is salty and why it isn't getting saltier.

Then he spends a lecture on water itself, investigating the special properties that make it indispensible to life. He continues with

  • the origins of waves and tides;
  • the diversity of marine life, from the ocean air to the deepest ocean trench;
  • the forces that shape coastlines;
  • the nature of bottom life, from tide pools to the deep sea;
  • and the links between weather, climate, and the ocean environment.
  • Professor Tobin closes the course with a glimpse into the future of the ocean and humanity's role in defining that destiny.

    The Ocean in Your Life

    Whether you live far from the coast or right on the water, the ocean touches on countless aspects of your life, from the climate to the oxygen-producing activity of ocean organisms to the many products that come to you by sea. The ocean's relevance also shows up in news stories about overfishing, ocean dumping, and other environmental issues, as well as in accounts of disasters such as the following, which Oceanography covers in detail:

    • Japanese tsunami: The devastating tsunami that engulfed coastal Japan in 2011 was set in motion by a gigantic undersea earthquake along a subduction zone, where the ocean floor is plunging beneath the rocks of the continent.
    • Gulf of Mexico oil spill: The Deepwater Horizon blowout in 2010 caused the largest uncontrolled release of oil and natural gas into the ocean ever recorded. You look at the expected—and unexpected—repercussions on marine life.
    • Hurricane Katrina: Unusually warm water in the Gulf of Mexico in the summer of 2005 turned an average hurricane into a category 5 monster. You investigate the ocean conditions that spawn hurricanes and the surprising power of their storm surges.
    • El Niño: Every few years the global climate enters a period of more extreme weather, when the Pacific trade winds slacken and the sea surface temperatures rise off the coast of Peru. You investigate the resulting cascade of effects, known as El Niño.

    Enrich Your Understanding of the Ocean World

    Oceanography is one of the most exciting areas in science, combining the thrill of exploring an otherworldly realm with the insights it gives into how the Earth works in all of its domains. Having spent nearly a year-and-a-half of his life cumulatively at sea on research expeditions, Professor Tobin is not only an expert on the subject but an eyewitness to the many wonders he describes.

    After taking this course, says Professor Tobin, you will gain "an appreciation for the complexity and richness of the ocean environment"—a world of organisms that have evolved to live in every conceivable niche in the sea, of ceaseless volcanic activity that is hidden beneath miles of water, of tides and currents that girdle the globe, and of other fascinating phenomena that make the ocean the most dynamic part of the planet.

    Next time you go to the beach, spend time on a sailboat, take a cruise, or even read a book or watch a movie or nature program about the sea, you will think of the expanse of blue water in a new way, with an enriched understanding of the ocean world.

    View Less
36 Lectures
  • 1
    Diving In—The Ocean Adventure
    Begin your study of the ocean from every angle, examining Earth's watery realm in light of geology, biology, chemistry, meteorology, and other fields. In this lecture, survey the extent of the ocean and the approaches that oceanographers take to understanding it. x
  • 2
    Explorers, Navigators, Pioneering Scientists
    The early explorers of the ocean were interested in charting its islands, dimensions, and resources—and in using it as a highway for trade. Relive the exploits of these mariners, who included Europeans, Chinese, and Polynesians. Only later did scientific exploration of the ocean begin. x
  • 3
    Ocean Basics and Ocean Basins
    As recently as the 1950s, geologists envisioned the ocean basins as a submerged version of the continents. Explore the topography of the seabed, discovering that it is shaped by geological forces fundamentally different from those on land. x
  • 4
    Mapping the Sea—Soundings to Satellites
    The ocean floor was once as mysterious as the surface of another planet. Investigate the technologies involved in measuring bathymetry, the undersea counterpart of topography. Weighted ropes and cables for gauging the depth of the sea have given way to sophisticated sonar from ships and radar from satellites. x
  • 5
    Habitats—Sunlit Shelves to the Dark Abyss
    Take a tour of organisms that live from the shallows to the ocean floor. Learn how to classify ocean zones, and discover the importance of temperature, chemistry, nutrients, light, and other factors for different life forms—from active swimmers to passive floaters and bottom dwellers. x
  • 6
    The Spreading Sea Floor and Mid-Ocean Ridges
    What made the ocean floor the way it is? Trace the evidence that ocean basins are geologically young and that new oceanic crust is being continually formed at mid-ocean ridges, pushing and rifting continental plates in a process called plate tectonics. x
  • 7
    The Plunging Sea Floor and Deep-Sea Trenches
    Investigate subduction zones, where oceanic crust plunges beneath an overriding tectonic plate. These margins are associated with deep-sea trenches, earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes. Examine other features, such as hotspots, which are a mid-plate phenomenon that includes the Hawaiian Islands chain. x
  • 8
    The Formation of the Earth and Its Ocean
    Cover 9 billion years of cosmic history—from the big bang, to the accretion of the sun and planets, to the formation of Earth's oceans 4 billion years ago. The water in the oceans came from water vapor in volcanic eruptions and possibly from comet impacts. x
  • 9
    The Early Ocean and the Origins of Life
    Explore scenarios for the origin of life, which may have begun around deep-sea hot springs. The oceans have maintained roughly the same conditions over the entire history of life on Earth, even though the sea floor has renewed itself many times over through plate tectonics. x
  • 10
    Marine Sediments—Archives of the Ocean
    Ocean sediments are like tree rings that can be "read" as a history of the ocean and climate through time. Investigate the different sources of sediments, which range from products of erosion on land, to the remains of sea creatures, to ejecta from asteroid impacts. x
  • 11
    Offshore Oil and Gas—Resources and Risks
    Learn the origin of petroleum and natural gas deposits, which formed under very specific conditions in marine sediments. As an example of the challenges of oil recovery, survey the technology of deep-water drilling, focusing on the disastrous blow-out in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. x
  • 12
    The Enduring Chemistry of Seawater
    Why is the sea salty? Why isn't it getting saltier? Probe these and other mysteries of ocean chemistry, looking at the remarkable stability and uniformity of seawater over time. Also study the role of water and the conjectured role of life in driving plate tectonics. x
  • 13
    How the Physics of Water Controls the Ocean
    Analyze the surprising properties that keep the ocean liquid and make water the defining physical substance for life. Among them is its ability to retain heat, which has kept Earth in a narrow temperature range hospitable to life for billions of years. Also investigate the propagation of light in water and why the ocean is blue. x
  • 14
    Waves—Motion in the Ocean
    Chart the dynamics of wind-generated waves, which include almost all ocean waves. See how they form, grow in size, travel for thousands of miles, and then break on shore. The big waves preferred by surfers come from remote regions that have the ocean's stormiest weather. x
  • 15
    Rogue Waves and Tsunami
    Long considered a mariners' tall tale, abnormally high "rogue" waves are now well documented. Understand the physics of why they form and the yearly toll they take on shipping. Then study tsunami, or seismic sea waves, which are generated when undersea earthquakes displace huge volumes of water, often with catastrophic results. x
  • 16
    Tides in Theory and Practice
    Tides are caused by the gravitational attraction of the moon and, to a lesser extent, the sun. Learn that the timing and height of tides are far more complex than the daily motions of the moon and sun suggest—due to the influences of coastal features, the Coriolis effect, and other factors. x
  • 17
    Marine Life, Energy, and Food Webs
    Trace the path of energy and food through oceanic ecosystems, which have a far higher turnover of biomass than the terrestrial equivalents. As a result, most of what grows in the oceans is very quickly consumed. Learn why warm, temperate seas are often nutrient-poor compared with polar waters. x
  • 18
    Tiny Plankton—The Most Abundant Life on Earth
    Survey some of the many species of plankton, which are passive, floating, and drifting organisms. Microscopic plankton are ubiquitous throughout the oceans and represent all three of the basic biological domains: Archaea, Bacteria, and Eukarya. x
  • 19
    Soft-Bodied Life in the Dark, Open Depths
    Investigate the soft-bodied organisms that live at great depths and have no skeletons or shells. Little known until recently, this group includes a variety of creatures whose amorphous bodies are often destroyed by nets and who only came to light through studies from submersibles. x
  • 20
    Swimming—The Many Fish in the Sea
    Contrasting with free-floating plankton, nekton are the ocean's swimmers. In this lecture, study the most numerous nekton—fish—focusing on their streamlining, gills, schooling, and other adaptations. Also, examine mollusks, including the octopus, squid, and nautilus. x
  • 21
    Marine Birds, Reptiles, and Mammals
    Turn to the nekton among birds, reptiles, and mammals. These feature some of the most magnificent creatures on the planet, including albatrosses, Sooty Shearwaters, sea turtles, manatees, seals, sea lions, whales, and dolphins. Focus on the adaptations that allow them to thrive in marine environments. x
  • 22
    Whaling, Fisheries, and Farming the Ocean
    Examine the economic exploitation of marine life, beginning with the history of whaling and continuing to the present, when fishing is the only significant source of hunted food. Weigh the alternatives of commercial fishing and mariculture in an era of rapidly declining fish populations. x
  • 23
    Where Sea Meets the Land and Why Coasts Vary
    Have you ever walked along a beach or stood on a high cliff overlooking the sea and wondered how the land got to be that way? Learn how erosion, deposition, sea-level change, plate tectonics, and other factors have produced the characteristic coastlines of the world. x
  • 24
    Where Rivers Meet the Sea—Estuaries and Deltas
    River mouths, deltas, tidal inlets, fjords, and enclosed bays are places where freshwater and seawater mix. Explore these complex zones, which are among the most biologically productive ecosystems on Earth. Many marine organisms carry out key parts of their lifecycles in such environments. x
  • 25
    Coastal Erosion—Beaches and Sea Cliffs
    Coastlines are constantly changing features. Examine what happens when structures are built to halt or reverse the change, especially at a time when sea level is rising. Most human-engineered solutions turn out to be short-term at best, and many have unintended consequences. x
  • 26
    Tidal Life, Sea Forests, and Coral Reefs
    Begin your survey of the organisms and ecosystems that flourish in the most complex and varied part of the ocean: the benthic zone, or sea bottom. Start in the shallows, where life inhabits a wide range of niches—from the crashing waves of tide pools to placid mudflats. x
  • 27
    Deep Bottom Life and Hydrothermal Vents
    Continue your investigation of the benthic zone by exploring the deep ocean bottom, where astonishing diversity exists in cold, darkness, and high pressure. Your tour includes sea cucumbers, brittle stars, herds of sea pigs, and the unique community around deep sea vents, which extracts energy from the Earth itself. x
  • 28
    Trade Winds—The Circulation of Heat and Wind
    Explore another ocean—the ocean of air—which interacts with Earth's seas through the force of wind on water. Investigate the cause of wind patterns such as the trade winds, westerlies, and polar easterlies. Two crucial factors are uneven distribution of heat and the Coriolis effect due to Earth's rotation. x
  • 29
    Heavy Weather—Storms and Hurricanes
    Gain insight into the world's largest storms by looking at the interaction of ocean, atmosphere, and land, and how it produces nor'easters, monsoons, and hurricanes. Focus on the life cycle of hurricanes—how they form, intensify, and often produce devastating storm surges, as happened during Hurricane Katrina. x
  • 30
    The Gulf Stream to Gyres—Vast Surface Currents
    Follow the chain of events that initiate surface currents in the ocean. Big currents such as the Gulf Stream are caused mainly by wind friction. The mapping of currents has been aided by incidents such as the accidental spill of thousands of floating bath toys in the Pacific in 1992. x
  • 31
    Upwelling, Downwelling, and El Niño
    Winds drive surface currents, and together wind and currents set in motion large-scale upwelling and downwelling. Study these patterns and the disturbances that lead to El Niño and La Niña cycles, which cause major disruptions in fisheries and weather. x
  • 32
    The Deepest, Slowest River—Polar Bottom Water
    While surface currents move a typical water molecule around an ocean basin in a year or two, down deep water circulates much more slowly, taking hundreds to thousands of years to make a circuit. Trace how dense, cold water masses from the polar regions slowly but inexorably move the great bulk of the ocean. x
  • 33
    The Ocean and Global Climate
    The ocean contains most of the heat in the ocean-atmosphere system, and surface currents distribute it around the planet. Begin your study of the ocean's reaction to increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which is leading to climate change worldwide. x
  • 34
    The Warming, Rising Sea
    Learn that one conjectured effect of global warming—the shutting down of the Gulf Stream leading to a new ice age in Europe—is unlikely. But the planet is already on a path to melting glaciers and steadily rising seas, with catastrophic implications for low-lying populated areas. x
  • 35
    Marine Pollution—The Impact of Toxins
    Turn to the problem of marine pollution, which includes runoff from land and deliberate dumping, in addition to acidification from atmospheric carbon dioxide. Also look at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where plastic particles and other debris have concentrated in a rotating mid-ocean current. x
  • 36
    The Future Ocean
    Finish the course by looking into the future. Constant change will continue to be the state of the ocean, just as it always has been. But humans can promote change for the better in a variety of ways, including using the national park model to establish marine sanctuaries. Learn other choices you can make to help preserve this wonder of the planet. x

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Harold J. Tobin
Ph.D. Harold J. Tobin
University of Wisconsin, Madison
Dr. Harold J. Tobin is Professor of Geoscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He earned his B.S. in Geology and Geophysics from Yale University and his Ph.D. in Earth Sciences from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Professor Tobin was named a Best Instructor by students at UW-Madison, and he was elected a Fellow of the Geological Society of America. Among his other honors is NASA's Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center Group Achievement Award for contributions to the astronaut training program. A specialist in marine geology and geophysics, Professor Tobin has spent nearly a year-and-a-half of his life at sea on 10 oceangoing research expeditions. His seagoing work has also included dives to more than a mile below the surface in the submarine Alvin. Since 2004, he has been Chief Scientist for the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program's Nankai Trough Seismogenic Zone Experiment, an ongoing U.S.&ndashJapan collaboration on the causes of submarine earthquakes and tsunami that is the largest scientific ocean drilling project in history. Professor Tobin has published more than 40 papers and articles in scholarly journals, and his work has been featured on television programs as well as in numerous magazine and newspaper articles.
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Reviews

Rated 4.4 out of 5 by 35 reviewers.
Rated 1 out of 5 by Excellent professor, but stupid noises The course was excellent on this engrossing subject. I like professor Tobin a lot. I watched about three hours of the DVDs. But every time the professor put up a slide, I got an annoying electronic noise. I liken that to a third grade teacher admonishing the disinterested kids, "NOW PAY ATTENTION". So I returned the course for a refund, along with two other courses with the same silly annoyances! I'll go to Barnes and Noble, seeing what Dr. Tobin published. August 28, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by "Oceanography..." should be a required course... ( Format: Video streaming ) During this time of global resource degradation and warming, "Oceanography..." should be a required course for politicians, skeptics and high school seniors. Dr. Tobin masterfully presents the science behind the ocean's roll in global climatology and pending change, a condition that will affect all life on earth in one way or another. Oceanography presents a clear overview of our oceans and their importance. The course is well organized and uses state of the art video technology and graphics to illustrate the concepts behind the science, concepts firmly established during the past decade or two because of the intensive science focused on the topic. This allows us a clear understanding of the phenomena and physics without skepticism.. Dr. Tobin is passionate about the subject and shows this in his energetic, dynamic lectures. The topics, flora, fauna, tides, currents, atmosphere, physics of heat exchange, chemistry, pollution etc., are presented in an understandable sequence, each lecture evoking us to view the next..." just one more". My only (mild) criticism of this course is that Dr. Tobin lacks the grammatical polish of a seasoned lecturer, but he is sure to improve over time. A good course to take with "Oceanography..." is "How the Earth Works"; they dovetail nicely. Very best regards, jkh August 12, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by One of my favorite courses I found this to be an excellent course, and I learned a lot from it. There is a very broad assortment of topics you learn about, including the weather (such as why a hurricane's path curves#, atmosphere #such as how the ocean removes CO2 from the atmosphere#, geology #such as how the ocean bottom forms), etc. I learned a lot about a lot of different things from this course. April 19, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Best GC I've done I've done a couple of dozen GCs since discovering them about 3 years ago, and I must say that "Oceanography" is my favorite. Keep in mind, I am NOT from a natural science background; my fields are linguistics and anthropology. I've tried a few courses in the natural sciences and mathematics and many have left me completely confused (nanotechnology, gemology and chaos come to mind). This course however, was highly engaging. In the scientific GCs I usually wind up skipping or skimming a large portion of the detailed middle lectures, but in this course I only found a couple of them to be a little too much for a layman. One of the biggest differences in the GCs for me is the teleprompter delivery vs. semi-extemporaneous delivery. Prof. Tobin does the latter, which I find infinitely more engaging. He is looking at YOU, not reading a prompter script with his eyes darting around like some GC professors do. As a teacher/prof myself, this is the approach I always take. Reading scripts is just not academically sound. As far as the variety of topics, this course has everything: biology, ecology, commerce, history, geology, etc. I was sad to finish this one, which is the sign of a true Great Course, in my opinion. April 10, 2014
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