Oceanography: Exploring Earth's Final Wilderness

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

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.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 32 minutes each
  • 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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Your professor

Harold J. Tobin

About Your Professor

Harold J. Tobin, Ph.D.
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...
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Oceanography: Exploring Earth's Final Wilderness is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 72.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Worthwhile Course, Though Not For All I would love to give this course 5-stars, if only for the importance of the subject, but I cannot. It will indeed be a very worthwhile course for many, but choose carefully. The subject is vast, and the course is necessarily a fast-moving overview. It covers the evolution of the oceans, which includes a lightening look at the formation of the earth; plate tectonics and the dynamics of the ocean floors; geology and geophysics, with some interesting looks at how our knowledge of these areas is obtained; ocean life; currents and their causes, including an excursion into atmospheric science; a smattering of relevant chemistry; global warming, pollution, and other environmental concerns; and a look at possible futures. (By the way, the science is at a very basic, descriptive level, quite easy to understand.) A surprise for me, which is a very individual response, was that I found much of the subject matter to be of far less intrinsic interest than I had anticipated. Prof. Tobin is a geologist and geophysicist, and the course emphasizes these areas. It devotes relatively little time to ocean life, which was the aspect I found most fascinating. Only six of the 36 lectures are focused on the biology of the oceans. While I think everyone should know the basics of geology, plate tectonics, and climate science, I found it hard to keep my mind from wandering during these lectures. More importantly, Prof. Tobin is not a natural lecturer. He speaks in a hesitant style, with an unvarying, monotonous intonation, each sentence sounding like every other. And the much repeated "you know," "sort of," "kind of," "um...uh," and "and things like that" were unhelpful and distracting. This unfortunately added to the difficulty I had maintaining my attention. The course is well-organized, with very good visuals, and Prof. Tobin is clearly both knowledgeable and deeply concerned about our planet and its oceans. Plus, the last few lectures are a very well done presentation of the evidence for global warming and other environmental concerns, and could be used as a mini-course for this area. I would very much appreciate, though, a full course on ocean biology, and an updated and balanced course on climate and global warming, with more specialized instructors in those areas. So - if you have a prior interest in geology and ocean science, or would like an overview of this area, this would be an excellent course to take. If your interest is primarily in ocean life, it will likely disappoint. And I honestly doubt, if you are not already drawn to these areas, that this course will inspire an interest. Take a good look at the lecture titles, and choose carefully.
Date published: 2011-12-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wow!!! This is a superbly presented course. The visuals as well as the presenter are very engaging. I watched this with a 94 year old friend. Watching two lectures back-to-back are just perfect. You must pay attention as the professor packs a lot of info into each lecture. Highly recommended! Wish every could was this good graphically. The professor knows his stuff.
Date published: 2011-12-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great graphics, great scenery and pictures! This course goes perfect with "How the Earth Works", it's pretty cool to go from studying the geology of land to studying geology of the sea. I really loved all the pictures and footage in this course, and there's no lack of them. Even mathematical formulas are provided to help understand how waves work, as well as how the physics of the oceans work and how understanding the physics of it has helped in our understanding of how to harness the geology of different ocean bottoms to help in our energy needs. There are plenty of graphs to illustrate what the professor is explaining, and it seemed like most of the time there were pictures or something of that nature to go along with the explanations... I also enjoyed seeing all the forms of life that exist in the ocean, both at the furthest depths as well as in the shallow waters. The whole course felt like walking through a big underwater museum, I loved it and will want to watch it again in the future. If you're interested in pursuing a career in Oceanography, or if you just love the ocean and are interested life that exists in the ocean, I have to really recommend this course. Graphically, along with "Physics and Our Universe", and "How the Earth Works", it's one of TTC's best courses. OK now I have to be honest about the one complaint I have... You've probably noticed I gave the professor 3 stars, and everything else 5 stars. In my opinion, I found the professor to be a little boring... He isn't as engaging or exciting as a lot of professors I've seen from TTC... He's not as exciting as Dr. Michael Wysession or Dr. Richard Wolfson... The enthusiasm doesn't need to be over the top to the point where it's forced and silly, but often Professor Harold J. Tobin sounded very monotone to me, and his voice seemed to have a droning quality to it that I didn't like. It seemed to me like he got in the habit of teaching too many apathetic students, and lost some of his enthusiasm for teaching... He doesn't have much inflection in his voice, and too often, despite the amazing pictures, I found myself spacing out... And I realized it was because of the professor - I didn't find him engaging enough. Still, I'm going to watch this course again, and I have to recommend it and say that it's worth it to add this to your TTC collection. Unlike other TTC courses, I can't watch more than one lecture a day from this professor... I've tried it, and I space out too much if I try to watch 2 lectures in one day. Again, I'm aware of the reason for this, it's because the professor is a bit boring. Still, don't be discouraged - this is a great course.
Date published: 2011-12-20
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