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.
The invention of thousands of oceanographic instruments and devices has changed the way oceanographers study the oceans and coasts. 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. 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.
Oceana Puananilei Francis, an assistant professor of civil engineering featured on this site, sees a bright future for ocean engineers: “Due to climate change and human impact on resources, we have been trying to ascertain if we can live sustainably in our world whether it is through conserving water resources or protecting our coastal communities from increasing storm surges. Therefore, people with the ability to do quantitative work in these fields are highly sought after.”