Waves Across the Pacific

We spend a lot of time talking about the wonders and potential of the Ocean Observatories Initiative during our Data Labs workshops.  After all, the OOI includes a large collection of standard and cutting-edge instruments that allow us to monitor the ocean like never before.  High-resolution, realtime data, along with the OOI’s comprehensive ability measure bio-geo-chemical-physical interactions in remote locations would probably seem like magic to oceanographers of the past.

But while today’s ocean observatories may be a great leap forward, I am often amazed by the discoveries made by previous generations of oceanographers using the technology of their day.

As just one example, check out this historic film I recently ran across. It features Walter Munk describing first-hand his project to measure storm wave propagation across the Pacific. I’m assuming it’s from the early 1950s, which makes it a time capsule for us, showcasing the challenges of oceanography from 70 years ago.

(Note, the standard Disney Plus disclaimer applies here: “This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions.”  That said, the oceanography should still be good. I might also recommend increasing the speed through the slow parts.)

Today we might ship out a few self-recording-satellite-connected wave buoys to colleagues across the Pacific and be home for dinner, as we watch the data roll in over the next year. (Or you can just check out the OOI’s wave sensors or those from CDIP without even having to leave the house.)

But back then, it took dozens of technical and support people living at various locations for months at a time to operate wave measuring devices.  And then, rudimentary computers (by today’s standards) were used to log and analyze the data.  It was no small undertaking, but the effort and the results allowed us to better understand the ocean more than we did previously.

So while I have no doubt that today’s OOI instrumentation will seem crude in the future, the question is, what great oceanography can we discover with what we have today?