Sustainability & Stewardship Topics in Introductory Oceanography

The following list includes recommended activities, web resources, and teaching suggestions for incorporating sustainability and stewardship topics into Introductory Oceanography courses. This list was gathered together as part of the June 2013 Teaching Oceanography workshop.

Shipping & Transportation

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Image of ferry taking off from docks in Juneau Alaska[creative commons]
Provenance: Katryn Wiese, City College of San Francisco
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The shipping and transportation industries are important players in the world economy. Nearly everything we use in our society that is imported is brought to us through ships. Harbors support both fishing and recreational vessel needs. Discussing this topic in an introductory oceanography class allows for discussion on the balance between economic need and environmental consequences as well as risk assessment associated with both.

Teaching Activities
  • Northwest Passage, by Glenn Richard, tasks students with using Google Earth and information from several web sites to investigate some of the consequences of climate change in polar regions, including the seasonal and longer-term changes in the extent of the ice cap at the North Pole, disintegration of ice shelves, opening of shipping routes, access to sources of fossil fuels, geopolitics, effects on polar bears, and possible secondary effects on climate in other regions due to changes in ocean currents.
Textbooks and Books
  • NOVA video: Why ships sink - Are you safe aboard a modern cruise ship?
Other Resources

Coastal management, sand resources, and control structures

Most of the world's population lives within a few feet of sea level. Coastal management is a topic that most impacts global society and that can engage your students, even if they do not live in a coastal community, as their tax money supports coastal living around their country. This topic is ripe for class debates and calculations of costs - economic and environmental and personal - with regards to property, cities, and wetlands.

Teaching Activities

Activity Ideas:

Have students:

  • work to identify what types of data they should access to predict impacts of human intervention at the shore.
  • make informed choices about their behavior at the shore.
  • study the impact of removing dunes to build houses, hotels, shops.
  • study the impact of dredging sand from an estuary and using it to replenish a beach (what are the consequences if the sand is different - in composition and/or size?)
  • study the impact of removing the freshwater surface lens (in the groundwater table).
  • study a particular state's definition of private v. public property, especially as it pertains to the shoreline. Compare among different states.
  • identify and characterize the multiple natural processes occurring at the shore: waves, longshore currents, tides, tidal currents, natural flora and fauna. Then evaluate how these processes interact to generate a complex, fluid environment of deposition and of erosion, specifically with regards to the variation of the beach profile seasonally and over longer time scales.
    • What is the impact of human constructs on the flow of sediment?
    • Class debate: should we pay for beach replenishment? Questions to consider: What does this cost? What economic development is encouraged by replenishment? Will construction of groins, jetties, and replenishment itself be cost-effective? What is the impact on the down-sediment stream?
    • Give students data and maps and let them determine whether House A needs to build a groin and what will be the impact on House B.
    • Calculate how much does it cost to students in Nebraska for beach replenishment in Florida?

Textbook Visualizations Websites

Mineral and energy resources

The ocean has vast mineral and energy resources, including dissolved matter (e.g. salt, bromine, magnesium), placer deposits (e.g. salt and gravel), precipitated matter (e.g. ferromanganese crust, manganese nodules), oil, and gas. It also has high potential for development of wind energy. This topic lends itself to discussion of the ocean as an economic resource and the [positive and negative] consequences that go along with utilizing ocean resources.

Teaching Activities

Activity Ideas
  • Class Debates Topics: Santa Barbara Tar Seeps, Wind Farms off the Cape Cod Coast, Tidal Energy from Bay of Funday, Estuarian Water Resources of Corpus Christi, Texas, Law of the Seas and US are not signatories; Geoengineering: Iron binding of CO2.
  • Calculate the quantity of manganese bound as nodules or gas hydrates is available or values or costs. What are the impacts for such mining activities?
  • Research and discuss how sulfur gas produced from Onion Fields is used generate electricity.

Fisheries and Aquaculture

The fisheries and aquaculture sectors are a major part of global food security, economic balance, and health. Fish and seafood sales are worth billions of dollars annually. Fisheries and aquaculture provide employment globally for hundreds of millions of people. According to the Food and Agricultural Association of the United Nations, back in 2008, "Most of the stocks of the top ten species, which account in total for about 30 percent of the world marine capture fisheries production in terms of quantity, are fully exploited." Meanwhile, fisheries and aquaculture are increasing annually. Fisheries collapse and aquaculture's role in supplementing our resources are key topics for students to explore in relation to both sustainability and social justice.

Teaching Activities

Activity Ideas

Geographic Distribution of Species / Genetic Groupings

  • Ideas for developing teaching materials for this concept include:
    • Student groups research large predatory fish (tuna, shark, billfish, swordfish, etc.) and report back
    • Where do the fish in your town come from - markets, restaurants and grocery stores
  • Resources that may be useful in developing this resource include:
  • Expected learning outcomes include:
    • Fish move around a lot; they do not adhere to political boundaries
    • Geography - general geography of the oceans
    • Where fisheries are located around the world
  • SeafoodWatch
    • explain how fisheries scientists use information to help us understand he distribution of fish in the ocean
  • Must have up to date information, as things have changed dramatically in the past decade and much more information is available on this issue than has been available in the past.
  • Learn more from Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch


  • Ideas for developing teaching materials for this concept include:
    • discussions on cultural differences, or using aquaculture to investigate cultural differences
    • history of the development of aquaculture
    • comparison between agriculture and aquaculture (e.g. Duarte et al., Rapid Domestication of Marine Species, Science, 20 April 2007, Vol 316, 1.5 pages long, with a very good graphic for students)
    • Environmental issues related to aquaculture
  • Resources that may be useful in developing this resource include:
  • Expected learning outcomes include:
    • Students should be able to explain costs and benefits of aquaculture

Tropical Fish Harvesting

  • Expected learning outcomes include:
    • Students should be able to explain costs and benefits of aquaculture

Books and Articles

International Laws of the Sea

International organizations such as the United Nations, The International Maritime Organization, and The International Whaling Commission work to create policies that impact a number of activities that take place in the seas, including fishing, mining, and pollution. Legal agreements are signed by participating and supporting countries. For example, in 1982, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea prescribed a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone surrounding all coastlines globally. Understanding the legalities, supporters, and consequences of these laws as well as the challenges in pushing them forward is a natural area of exploration for students studying the world ocean.

Activity Ideas

  • Role-playing lab in which students set up their own rules to manage the sea. Discuss who ends up enforcing rules and the difficulties of setting up such a rule. For example, see Dan Morgan's role play activity Role playing exercise for the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea
  • Discussion about potential impacts of mining manganese nodules - e.g. suspended sediment, impact on fisheries, etc.
  • Climate change's role in opening new lands - who owns the Arctic in areas with overlapping boundaries? Use a map showing areas of overlap and discuss challenges.

Marine Pollution

Marine pollution can come in many forms including plastic and waste from human activities, oil spills, nutrient runoff from fertilizers, and even sound. Engage your students in discussion and activities about how to lessen the pollution that goes into the ocean and on solutions to cleaning up the pollution that currently exists.

Teaching Activities

Textbooks and Articles


Important Concepts

  • Pollution takes different forms: e.g. plastic/debris, oil, noise, nutrient pollution, radioactivity, septic discharge/wastewater, mercury, medical waste
  • Links to their everyday lives no matter where they live
  • Biomagnification, residence time, "life-cycle" of pollution; spatial and temporal scaling of pollution
  • Ocean is a shared resource, pollution has no boundaries
  • Solutions to pollution concerns/challenges

Oceanic contribution to climate change

The ocean and atmosphere interact in many ways, including providing a source and storage for CO2, sea and air currents, and weather events. Explore this interaction through discussion of topics such as thermohaline circulation, El Nino/La Nina events, hurricanes, and more. Engage students in discussion about ocean contribution to climate change, effects of climate change on the ocean (e.g. coral bleaching, changing chemistry of the ocean), policy related to this issue, and more.


Visualization Websites

Student Learning Outcomes

  • Distinguish between climate and weather
  • Identify the major societal impacts of global climate change (including increasing hurricane intensity, changing precipitation patterns, storm surge, etc.)
  • Identify the difference between natural climate variability and anthropogenic climate change
  • Describe the global carbon cycle (including ocean acidification)
  • Identify the ocean's role in the global heat budget
  • Identify the link between ocean and atmospheric circulation (include systems such as the water cycle, El Nino)
  • Recognize that the Earth is a system - there are feedbacks that add complexity
  • Identify expected and realized consequences of climate change

Important Topics

  • Heat budget, heat transport, latent heat, convection, heat capacity
  • Carbon cycle
  • Ocean-atmosphere cycles (e.g. El Nino)
  • Difference between weather and climate, extremes vs averages
  • Ocean acidification
  • Mitigation, geo-engineering
  • Natural vs human impacts
  • Latent heat
  • Scales of climate change
  • Role of policy, e.g. carbon trading

Barriers to Teaching about Oceanic Contribution to Climate Change

  • Student don't have a good understanding of uncertainty - it's not a black or white issue
  • Misconceptions
  • Challenges understanding and interpreting available data, particularly anomaly data
  • Time scales - geological time scales vs current rates of change
  • Spatial scales - changes in global averages vs. regional
  • Time constraints - not enough time in our classes
  • Not very well covered in textbooks

Pre-existing Knowledge Helpful to Overcoming Barriers to teaching about Oceanic Contribution to Climate Change

  • The greenhouse effect
  • Understanding natural climate variability (e.g. pCO2 records of ice cores, etc..)
  • Carbon cycle - in the ocean in particular
  • Carbonate chemistry - dissolving CO2 into water
  • Role of biology - carbon fixation and biological pump