Oceanography The Official Magazine of
The Oceanography Society
Volume 12 Issue 03

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Volume 12, No. 3
Pages 33 - 34

A Biological WOCE

John A. McGowan
First Paragraph

Pattern recognition is the very basis on which we attempt to understand the world. This has two elements; patterns in space and patterns in time. In many ways these cannot be separated observationally, but as long as we are aware of the possible aliasing of our results we can use the appropriate observations to help us towards enlightenment. Describing spatial pattern in the ocean, especially the open ocean, is difficult to accomplish because of the vast space involved (read expensive ship-time here) but some preliminary such work has been done. The main confusion is that there are many scales of variability or what used to be called patchyness. Patchiness has not really received very much study, but never-the-less has served to obscure our understanding of which are the important scales of variability, diversity gradients and ecological boundaries, i.e. pattern recognition. A very similar, if not the same issue, was behind the World Ocean Circulation Experiment (WOCE) program in physical oceanography where it was called the signal to noise ratio problem. Eddies, fronts, and meanders served to alias our ability to identify major circulation systems whose dynamics were basically different and therefore our “understanding of the general circulation of the global ocean” was not good enough “to be able to model its present state and predict its evolution in relation to long term changes in the atmosphere.” Resolution of these problems was accomplished by having very closely spaced stations in order to detect small scale variability but ships traveled long distances to enable detection of large spatial scale changes as well. That is, they studied many scales of spatial variability to allow spectral analysis to detect the “important” patterns. Because of the close station spacing and their desire to look at the entire water column, the number of properties routinely measured had to be rather few so that entire cross ocean transects could be accomplished in a short enough time that major temporal changes did not take place. I think we biologists should follow this lead.


McGowan, J.A. 1999. A biological WOCE. Oceanography 12(3):33–34, https://doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.1999.10.