Help me learn new things! – Oceanography

This post is part of a series in which I’m dedicating a month to learning about twelve new things this year. The full schedule can be found here. This is month seven. (tl;dr at the bottom of this post)

I want to start this month’s post with a confession. When I settled on oceanography, I was actually thinking it was meteorology. I got the two confused. I wanted to learn more about “weather”, not about the “oceans”.

But I’m a man of my word. I said I’d learn about oceanography, so that’s what I did.

The first book I read was Flotsametrics and the Floating World: How One Man’s Obsession with Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science by Curtis Ebbesmeyer and Eric Scigliano. It was… ok. I probably shouldn’t have read this one first. It was half-biography and half-science. I did find much of it interesting, and it was well written, but knowing nothing of oceanography, I was hoping for something more “introductory” to start. It’s my fault, I suppose. I read the books I could get on kindle first while I waited for the old-fashioned books to arrive by mail. The main author was an oceanographer a couple decades ago when a container ship full of Nikes fell off a ship in the Pacific. They arrived in Seattle and other Northwest sites six months later, and actually helped to describe ocean currents in some detail. There are a lot of anecdotes like this in the book, and it’s not terrible.

The next book I read was Climate and the Oceans, by Geoffrey Vallis. This was also decent, but way too complicated for me. If you want to learn the differential equations that define ocean currents and how the oceans work, this is the book for you. I didn’t.

The third book, a paperback book, was where I struck paydirt. It was Do Dolphins Ever Sleep?, by Pierre-Yves and Sally Bely. When I was a kid I owned this series of books called “The Big Book of Amazing Facts“. They were full of really short chapters where they taught you interesting things. It made me look like a know-it-all. I loved them. I still have them, except my son Noah now has them all, which pleases me to no end.

Anyway, this book was like The Big Book of Amazing Facts for the ocean, and I loved it. It’s totally worth the money. Go read it.

The fourth book I read wasn’t for me. Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas, by Stephan Helmreich. It was more anthropology than oceanography, and I couldn’t get into it. I read it cover to cover – cause that’s what I do – but I can’t recommend it.

Before I get to the final book, can I take a moment to bitch about textbooks? Every month, I get a few recommended to me, and every month I curse Amazon cause they’re so fricking expensive. It’s not right. I sometimes buy them and sometimes I don’t. This month, I bought one “used”. Essentials of Oceanography, by Alan P. Trujillo and Harold V. Thurman.

And while I want to be bitter, it was exactly what I was looking for. A basic textbook to teach me about oceanography. I learned about how the oceans formed, plate tectonics, ocean structures and life, how the oceans affect the air and weather, waves, tides, the coast, and more. It’s awesome. I wish I’d read it first. And it’s a tragedy it’s so expensive.

In no particular order, here are some of the things I learned this month, some of which blew my mind:

  • It’s still unclear how we got our oceans. Did we get the water from coalescing particles as the Earth formed, or did the water come from comets and such that crashed into the Earth later. It’s still debatable.
  • While the oceans cover a huge amount of area on the Earth, there’s not as much water there as you might think. Take all the water and make a sphere of it, and it’s much, much smaller than the Earth. There’s even less fresh water.
  • The Appalachian Mountains in North America are compositionally very like the Caledonian Mountains in Europe. That’s cause they were one big mountain range when all the continents were part of Pangaea.
  • Speaking of Pangea, the reason we get dinosaurs fossils that are similar in North America and other continents isn’t cause they swam the oceans. It’s cause when they dominated the Earth, Pangaea was still in play. I never thought of that. Maybe you had.
  • The sun and moon both cause the oceans to balloon out, sometimes in competing directions. This means that in different parts of the Earth at the same time, sea level is WAY different. All cause of gravity.
  • It might sound silly, but the ways in which the rotation of the earth, gravity, and the poles cause winds to be pretty predictable in general is fascinating.
  • Dolphins may sleep with one eye open cause they’re letting half their brain sleep at a time. Crazy.
  • It’s amazing how little sails and ships have changed over millennia.
  • How in God’s name did the Pelopeniasians find islands in the south Pacific thousands of years ago? I don’t know how you’d find the courage.
  • The ocean is full of these circular currents which have a pretty steady speed. It’s amazing.

Ok, so I guess it wasn’t so bad in the end. I’m still finding this project to be well worth my time, even when my wife rolls her eyes as I complain how I have to read books on oceanography when I have so much else to do.

tl;dr: If you can find a reasonably priced copy, read Essentials of Oceanography if you want to learn about the topic. If you want a much cheaper book of interesting facts with which to impress your friends, read Do Dolphins Ever Sleep?


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