East of Korea and West of Japan...
The Very Model of Modern Major Oceanography*

     *Adapted from the introduction to the special issue of Oceanography, September 2006,
       by Ken H. Brink and Stephen P. Murray

The Japan/East Sea is often described as a miniature ocean, and the characterization is apt. The relatively small basin (about 1000 km by 800 km) spans conditions from subarctic to subtropical and so involves many of the features found in larger oceans: deep water formation, subduction, boundary inputs, fronts, eddies, ocean jets, and biological zonations. The basin, although oceanographically diverse, is surprisingly tractable for oceanographic studies with our modern oceanographic tools.

The Japan/East Sea Program, sponsored by the Office of Naval Research, was born as a logical result of the very important ground work done over the preceding decade under the auspices of CREAMS (Cooperative Research in East Asian Marginal Seas), a remarkable international effort that unified scientific efforts in Japan, the Republic of Korea, and Russia in an area where they had not previously worked productively together. The CREAMS effort enabled new levels of scientific insight, while at the same time it lowered political barriers that had severely restricted international research efforts, such as where a given group could work. The CREAMS findings, as well as the CREAMS organization, then made it very attractive, and feasible, for a group of U.S. scientists to join in the study of this fascinating miniature ocean.

Perhaps even more than the compactness of the Japan/East Sea, a striking feature of its study is the extent to which it is evident that the future has arrived. We can compare what was possible two decades ago against today's reality as demonstrated by the Japan/East Sea Program.

Technological advances: Moored physical systems are now survivable even in this hostile, heavily fished environment, making long, continuous time series, previously only a pipe dream, available. Towed undulated platforms now allow horizontal resolution of a kilometer or two for physical measurements—and are obtained without slowing down (let alone stopping) the ship. Genuinely synoptic surveys have become routine. Similarly, and even more strikingly, the towed Video Plankton Recorder is capable of detecting individual zooplankters, and, using an expert system, identifying them and counting them at a spatial resolution comparable to that resolved by physical oceanographers. The simultaneous and synoptic resolution of both physical and biological structures opens entire new possibilities for developing a genuinely quantitative understanding of physical-biological coupling.

Remote sensing: Satellite information has become completely integrated into the data streams throughout the Japan/East Sea Program. Satellite color or temperature data guide sampling in real time and they make in situ observations intelligible after the fact. Satellite ocean wind data are recognized as extremely high-quality information and are now critical to modelers. Rather than remote sensing being a specialized add-on to a field program, it has become so tightly integrated that we often lose sight of its presence and of the way it has revolutionized our view of the sea.

Scale interactions: The breadth, resolution, diversity, and durability of present observing systems now allow serious study of scale interactions (such as between eddies and internal tides) that appear to be so important for determining dissipation, patterns of variance, and smaller-scale structures. The more we learn of these scale interactions, the more we appreciate the inability of understanding a single scale window in isolation.

Models: In the distant past, numerical modeling components were included with a clear understanding of their potential value, but that value was often not realized because of limitations associated with computing capabilities, lack of data and information for inclusion, and the dearth of tools for facilitating display and interpretation. Those days are past. Numerical modeling efforts are now integrated into the field programs and produce results that can be compared very plausibly with observations. Thus, they play a central role in explaining the realities of the ocean and in pointing out unobserved features that are likely to exist.

Interdisciplinary: New doors have been opened by new capabilities, new intellectual frameworks, and, especially, the development of observing systems and models that resolve physical, chemical, and biological systems on the same scales. A new mind set is growing from this new capability, which has all ocean-science disciplines thinking much harder about the broad context of their work and about how their own specialized subject affects processes described by other disciplines.

International: All of the components of the core ONR Japan/East Sea Program were, of themselves, international. It is only natural that this should be so in the context of this particular body of water, given that the key insights leading to this program were derived from decades of important work carried out by Japanese, Korean, and Russian investigators. This international flavor is likely to grow in the future for all oceanographic research. Needs for pooled physical and intellectual resources have become more apparent. Together these resources are capable of dealing with the magnitude of the increasingly ambitious problems envisioned by all.

We have thus taken stock of this program and so recognize that the future of oceanographic research has, in many ways, arrived. Yet, we can expect even greater changes over the coming decades. One obvious change is the growing importance of international ocean observing systems that will provide the context and many of the routine measurements required by process-oriented programs. These observing systems will likely become just as integrated as satellite remote sensing has become. Numerical models, and their ability to replicate more aspects of the actual ocean, will continue to improve. Finally, communications and data-transmission capabilities will improve to the point that most data sets will become broadly available in virtually real time. This communication speed will facilitate the expansion of existing remarkable feedbacks that allow, for example, models to help shape adaptive sampling schemes. Certainly, the science and its expanding capabilities will continue to take our breath away.