How Oceanic Engineering Has Evolved Since 1983

The IEEE group dedicated to advancing the field was named a society 35 years ago

10 July 2018

This article is an excerpt of “IEEE Oceanic Engineering Society History,” published in the Engineering and Technology History Wiki.

The topic of climate change first gained urgency and public attention in the 1980s because of dramatic weather events including El Niño, which caused floods and other natural disasters around the world. Observers were developing a better understanding of the role oceans played in such events. Oceanic engineering was becoming more crucial in telecommunications, Earth observation, and other fields, and the IEEE Oceanic Engineering Society was established in 1983. Its charter encompasses all electric technology that pertains to bodies of water.


Oceanic engineers during the 1980s and 1990s designed a variety of sophisticated monitoring tools including instrument buoys, remote-sensing satellites, and real-time data transmitters. They also wrote software and created graphics to model and visualize the collected data. By the end of the 20th century, thousands of buoys and floats, and scores of satellites, were providing abundant, improved data to scientists studying the oceans.

Researchers at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory predicted the El Niño event in 1986 months in advance, using a computer model of ocean-atmosphere coupling. The worldwide effects of El Niño—a band of warm ocean water that develops in the central and east-central equatorial Pacific Ocean—include floods, droughts, and diseases. Those devastating effects—together with scientists’ growing ability to explain the ways in which they are related—began to focus more public interest and attention on the oceans.


The midair explosion of the U.S. space shuttle Challenger in January 1986 helped focus the public’s attention on the research. Recovery of debris from the disaster was vital to the investigation of what caused it. Some of the most important pieces of the shuttle were underwater at depths that made discovery and recovery difficult.

That February, six unmanned remotely operated vehicles and two manned submersibles succeeded in finding and recovering debris from the Atlantic Ocean floor at depths ranging from 67 to 365 meters. In particular, the submersibles were able to recover pieces of the booster rocket—which was crucial to investigators in reconstructing the series of mechanical failures that caused the shuttle to explode.


The enormous increase in telecommunications traffic toward the end of the 20th century and the vast amounts of revenue such traffic was capable of generating were important drivers of oceanic engineering. Designing and building the lasers and repeaters of an undersea telephone cable so that they would work reliably and continuously in the cold and pressure of the deep ocean were complex tasks. Moreover, accurate undersea surveys of the projected cable routes needed to be carried out to avoid damaging terrain as well as costly obstacles that might hinder the laying of the cables.

In 1988, TAT-8, the first fiber-optic transatlantic telephone cable, went into service. A joint project of AT&T, British Telecom International, and DGT of France, the cable could transmit as many as 37,500 simultaneous telephone conversations. Three years later, TAT-9 was laid from North America to Europe including the United Kingdom. It was capable of carrying 80,000 telephone channels and could transmit data at 565 megabytes per second. By 1994, the first marine cables to use all-optical amplifiers were laid between Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In 1995 a network of fiber-optic cables was installed across the Pacific Ocean.

Related: IEEE Milestones Honor Two Historical Breakthroughs at AT&T Laboratories


The World Ocean Circulation Experiment began in 1990 and wrapped up in 2002. The project researched the role oceans play in the Earth’s climate, and it built an extensive physical and chemical data set against which future changes could be measured. More than two dozen nations participated in the program, one of the most ambitious oceanographic studies conducted.

Reflecting the multinational participation in such enormous projects, the IEEE Oceanic Engineering Society formed its France chapter in 1990—the first outside of North America. The society then added a vice president for international activities. The OES student activities committee also was formed around that time. Changes to the society’s constitution and bylaws allowed its administrative committee to “meet” via phone. There are now 18 technical committees.

The first IEEE Oceans conference held outside North America took place in 1994 in Brest, France. More than 70 percent of the authors and attendees were European; no more than 10 percent of previous conference attendees had come from Europe.

Seeing that holding a conference in a region tended to foster local activities and could even lead to the formation of chapters, the OES in 2005 revised its procedures so that two Oceans conferences would be held annually at venues in North America, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region. The first conference this year was held in May in Kobe, Japan. The next one is scheduled for 22–25 October in Charleston, S.C.


At the 2003 IEEE Technical Activities Board meeting in Seattle, the Global Earth Observing System of Systems (GEOSS) was discussed in a meeting with officers of three IEEE societies: the OES, the Aerospace and Electronic Systems Society, and the Geoscience and Remote Sensing Society. GEOSS was to be a virtual system that would assemble, analyze, process, and disseminate information. It would include data about climate variability and change, improving water resource management, protecting ecosystems, and sustainable agriculture. The group decided that IEEE needed to be involved in the global effort, so the three societies formed the IEEE committee on Earth observations.

GEOSS, which is still being developed, employs sensors, communications devices, storage systems, and computers to analyze data. The goal is to improve monitoring and to increase our understanding of the planet. The system is expected to yield advances that will benefit humanity, in fields including agriculture, climate, energy, health, and weather.

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