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The Coastal Zone Color Scanner (CZCS) launched in 1978 showed biological oceanographers the patterns, variability, complexity, and coherence of ocean biology for the first time. Biological oceanography became a global discipline in a single step. It is, of course, somewhat facetious to call this new satellite-based remote sensing capability an "accident." Far-sighted individuals such as Gift Ewing and Charlie Yentsch kept prodding the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the right direction; they provided an accurate vision of what could be. However, the real drivers in the early days were the spirit of NASA, its engineers, and their unquenchable drive to build whatever could be built and flown on satellites. Our reading of the event is that NASA was looking for challenges, and the quantitative assessment of ocean surface chlorophyll and related pigments by reflected light was a challenge they took on with enthusiasm. Ironically, biological oceanographers don't even know the names of these creative NASA engineers who built the CZCS, but that doesn't reduce our debt to them.
The first CZCS data of reflected light that became available in the late 1970s started a scramble to put together systems to process and interpret this new kind of data. The key algorithms produced at the University of Miami (Gordon and Clark, 1980; Gordon et al., 1983) were the "open sesame" that permitted biological oceanographers to see the ocean for the first time (see references below). As CZCS images flooded into our consciousness it became obvious that we needed to train a cohort of biological oceanographers who would know how to use the new technology. This hard work has paid off. When a new, much improved U.S. ocean color satellite Sea-Viewing Wide Field of View Sensor (Sea WiFS) (Plate 2) flew in August 1997, the community was ready. As a result, the pace of biological oceanography has quickened all around the globe.
The space-based analysis of chlorophyll concentration based on ocean color revealed (1) oceanography's chronic problem of undersampling; (2) dominance of mesoscale physical processes in determining the spatial distribution of phytoplankton; (3) effect of topography on biomass; (4) complexity of the seasonal progression of phytoplankton blooms; and (5) magnitude of interannual variability. Space-based analysis changed not only our perception of the ocean, but also our ideas of what constitutes good biological oceanography. Of the various landmark achievements mentioned here, this is one that profoundly affects all biological oceanographers and indeed each citizen of the planet. Having seen the totality of the oceans, mankind can no longer maintain the concept of discrete or isolated components of the ocean.
NASA, of course, was the major patron of this work, but NSF has been and remains an important supporter of the synthesis and interpretation of this exciting new way to view the ocean. This NASA-NSF cooperation is an example of science support at its best.
1980 Gordon, H., and D.K. Clark. 1980. Atmospheric effects in the remote sensing of phytoplankton pigments. Boundary-Layer Meteorol. 18:299-313.
1983 Gordon, H.R., D.K. Clark, J.W. Brown, O.B. Brown, R.H. Evans, and W.W. Broenkow. 1983. Phytoplankton pigment concentrations in the Middle Atlantic Bight: Comparison of ship determinations and CZCS estimates. Applied Optics 22:3929-3931.
1986 Esaias, W.E., G.D. Feldman, C.R. McClain, and J.A. Elrod. 1986. Monthly satellite-derived phytoplankton pigment distribution for the North Atlantic Ocean basin. Eos, Trans., AGU 67:835-837.