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50 Voices of the Future: Margaret Leinen on advances in oceanography

In honor of UC San Diego Extension’s first 50 years, 50 Voices of the Future asks thought leaders about the trends, breakthroughs and social advances they foresee over the next 50 years.

As much as we know about our planet’s ocean, it contains countless mysteries we have yet to solve, countless secrets we have yet to decipher. Dr. Margaret Leinen, director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, notes that “we have more images of Mars than we do of the bottom of the ocean.” Advances in technology, she says, will allow us to peer into the ocean’s distant past in order to forecast its future changes and the implications of those changes for the planet as a whole. “That ability to really see the ocean, and what’s in the ocean, and to see it changing in front of us, is probably the most exciting development in our field,” she says.

 Why is the work you do important?

I’m an oceanographer. The ocean covers 70 percent of the planet. It is the absolute driver of global climate. The ocean moderates the climate and keeps us from having really great temperature extremes. All of the precipitation originally comes from the ocean. The ocean is a huge food source for everyone and a major food source for 2 billion of the poorest people on the planet. Virtually all the goods that we think of as the basis for trade – big things like lumber and cars, small things like electronics — are transported over the ocean. Then of course there’s national defense – the Navy is a major player in defense. Then there are other things like the quality of the environment that makes swimming, diving, surfing, and sailing possible. Oceanographers look at all of those aspects. They look at how the ocean works, they look at the ecosystems within it, they look at techniques to be able to determine how the ocean is changing, they look at fisheries, they look at coastal issues like water quality, sea-level rise, etc. So it’s the sum of all those very important roles that oceanographers play.

What are the influential/exciting developments happening in your field now and why?

The ocean has been one of the most under-observed parts of the earth. We have more images of the surface of Mars than we do of the bottom of the ocean. But that’s changing. New systems are being developed that are autonomous and that have great capability of collecting and transmitting data. Even more important are new technologies for being able to get a global picture of the ocean itself – the interior of the ocean. We now have four thousand autonomous floats moving around the ocean every day, and every day about a fifth of those floats report back on profiles they’ve taken of the entire upper 6,500 feet of the ocean. We have a picture of the temperature, the salinity, the currents of the ocean that is so much more detailed than ever before as a result of ten years of these measurements. This new technology is completely revolutionizing oceanography. There are also new instruments for biology, enabling us to look at the genomics of the ocean, the microbiology of the ocean. The field is exploding so fast in capability that it’s hard to even keep track of. That ability to really see the ocean, and what’s in the ocean, and to see it changing in front of us, is probably the most exciting development in our field.

What’s the next big thing?

It’s hard to under-sell how important our new knowledge of the microbiology of the ocean is. In the last decade our understanding of microbes and viruses has completely changed our thinking. We now know that the genetic make-up of microbes holds keys to what the ocean was like in the past. Someone just described it this way: The earth’s history — since the time that there was an ocean — is written in the DNA of the microbes of the ocean in a language that we never knew and that we still don’t know how to speak.

How big an impact will your field play in shaping the future of the San Diego region and beyond?

San Diego is a coastal town, has a huge economy related to the ocean – trade, tourism, fishing, Navy – and the region itself is very much a part of that. Even the biotech part of the San Diego economy has not yet profited by our understanding of all of this ocean biology. I think oceanography will play an incredible role in shaping the evolution of the biotech industry here, unveiling marine molecules related to new drugs or novel compounds that do interesting things that we need done. I think oceanography will also shape the future of San Diego in how we deal with sea-level rise and how we deal with pollution in our waters; oceanography is at the heart of that.

Hop into your time machine…what does the future look like for this field in 50 years?

Oceanography will be even more interdisciplinary than it is now. This year we hired eight new faculty who have fully joint appointments with other parts of the university – the School of Medicine, the School of Engineering, the departments of anthropology, biology, and global policy and strategy. We need closer relationships with all of those fields to be able to attack the big questions and problems that we want to look at over the next decades. Also, our field will be saturated with technologies for observing the ocean that we don’t even know about now

Leinen is featured on UC San Diego’ Extension STEAM Channel as part of series The Constellation: Sally Ride Science Conversations. She discusses her career, leading the University of California’s delegation to the Paris Climate Conference and the impact of the new Research Vessel/Sally Ride.

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