The field of ocean engineering provides an important link between the other oceanographic disciplines such as marine biology, chemical and physical oceanography, and marine geology and geophysics. Just as the interests of oceanographers have driven the demand for the design skills and technical expertise of ocean engineers, the innovations in instrumentation and equipment design made by ocean engineers have revolutionized the field of oceanography. This is especially true within the last three decades.

The invention of thousands of oceanographic instruments and devices has changed the way oceanographers study the oceans and coasts. Examples include: computer- and satellite-linked buoys and floats, sediment traps, ocean seismometers (instruments that measure seafloor movement in a manner similar to the way seismographs measure earthquake activity on land), underwater video equipment, acoustic measuring devices (instruments that make it possible to "sense" underwater objects and seafloor formations), and underwater vehicles, including submersibles and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs).

Information that once took years to compile, and that frequently involved sampling in harsh weather conditions, can now be accomplished in minutes, often from remote locations, including ships and laboratories. The innovations of ocean engineers have enabled oceanographers to travel farther offshore and deeper into the sea, and to stay there for longer periods of time. Because of ocean engineers, major oceanographic discoveries -- including hydrothermal vents, ocean volcanoes, thousands of miles of underwater mountain chains, "new" species, and biological, chemical, geographical, and physical processes and phenomena -- have been made.

Ocean engineering is actually a combination of several types of engineering: a mix of mechanical, electrical, civil, acoustical, and chemical engineering techniques and skills, coupled with a basic understanding of how the oceans work. The importance of working in partnerships with oceanographers from other disciplines is critical, as the challenge of working in the ocean environment requires a range of backgrounds and skills.

Dianna Bo
Ocean Engineer
Glenda K. Ashford
Environmental Engineer
Dianna Bo
Ocean Engineer
Chad W. Scott
Marine Civil/Structural Engineer

The expertise of ocean engineers is invaluable to oceanographers interested in measuring or studying various aspects of the ocean. For example, programmable buoys that can remain at sea for long periods of time have helped physical oceanographers study currents and weather in many locations at once. In addition, the data gathered by these buoys can be relayed back to a laboratory located on a ship or on land, giving the researcher "real-time" data. This is especially important for marine meteorologists.

Not only do ocean engineers design and build instruments that must stand up to the wear and tear of frequent use, they must design instruments that will survive the harsh conditions of the ocean environment. Salt water is highly corrosive to many materials, and high winds, waves, currents, severe storms, and marine life fouling (such as barnacles) must also be factored into design plans. It has even been said that the marine environment is more hostile than outer space!

In addition to ocean engineers, technicians play a key role in maintaining and preparing the equipment. It is the responsibility of technicians to make sure that instruments are functioning properly, that they are recording the measurements they were designed to, and, in some cases, that the information being recorded is relayed back to satellites or computers that may be hundreds or even thousands of miles away.

Coastal engineering has become an increasingly important part of ocean engineering. With more and more people living or working at or near the world's coasts, problems associated with coastal development, such as pollution and waste disposal, will require the expertise and innovation of coastal engineers. For example, increasing the capacity of a coastal communityto handle the sewage and garbage generated by a growing population requires careful attention to the effect disposal methods will have on the adjacent water bodies. What may work for an oceanside community may not work for a lakefront or riverfront community. Also, waves, rising sea level, and storms have a significant impact on coastlines, often causing erosion and loss of coastal property. In efforts to protect coastal structures, coastal engineers are tasked with designing and creating ways to lessen the impact of storms and other natural shoreline processes.

The oil industry, military, and marine navigation fields also require ocean engineering skills. Each of these sectors directly impacts our lifestyle in some way, be it a source of energy, transportation, or our nation's defense. The work of ocean engineers plays an important role in each of these employment sectors. Because technology is central to the field of ocean engineering, future career prospects seem promising. And, as the role of the ocean continues to gain the interest of business, government, and the private sector, the demand for ocean engineers should grow.

Experts in the education and engineering fields regard ocean engineering as a very systems oriented field because of its interdisciplinary nature. Without the expertise of ocean engineers, oceanography would be many years behind in terms of what we know about the ocean system and its impacts on our daily lives.


© 2009 WHOI Sea Grant Program and NH Sea Grant Program