Contributions Germany Made in Early Oceanography

Oceanography has a rich history dating back to the days of Plato. Plato studied mostly the ocean’s waves. Oceanography is the exploration and study of the oceans and the life that inhabits them. Oceanography also includes the study of how the oceans interface with the atmosphere. Germans made early strides in oceanography. The first and second World Wars partially obscured this fact. The German Oceanographic Committee made many advances in the field, particularly in the late 1800s and early to mid-1900s. Germany sailed many ships to discover what helped define oceanography. Their ships were the Germania, Gazelle, National, Valdivia and Meteor. These ships sailed from the Arctic to the Antarctic. All these expeditions originated with the famed geographer Augustus Petermann.

The Germania

Born in Bleicherode, Germany, in 1822 (he died in 1878), Petermann was a key figure in promoting ocean exploration. He charted many of the early maps, all beautifully detailed. In fact, the very first map of the Pacific Ocean was created because of his efforts. He cartographed the first bathymetric map of the Pacific Ocean. The Germania explored parts of Greenland.  During a near-fatal accident with ice, the crew learned how to survive the winter by making a shelter using briquette coal dust and floating on the ice. Maps detailing surface water temperatures of the Arctic and ice limits resulted from these explorations.  

The Gazelle

In 1886, Germany got another expedition underway, this time headed by one of Petermann’s students. The Gazelle, headed by Freiherr von Schleinitz, did many sea observations. His expeditions helped make numerous temperature observations.

The National

Following in the footsteps of the Gazelle, Victor Hensen led the next major German expedition in 1889. The ship and his crew developed a way to measure what microscopic life the oceans contained. This study is the basis of the oceanic food chain.

The Valdivia

Ten years later (in 1898), Germany launched the Valdivia Expedition. Led by Carl Chun, they studied the different species of plankton. Chun also discovered that some of the species thrived in the middle waters. Gerhard Schott, physical oceanographer, supported Chun’s view when many scientists of his day did not.

The Meteor

The last significant German expedition occurred in 1925 aboard the ship Meteor. First headed by oceanographer Alfred Merz and Captain F. Spiess, this expedition discovered that sea water contained gold.  The crew used soundings, bottom samples and gravity cores, as well as water samples. Early sonar equipment aided in the first detailed survey of the South Atlantic Ocean floor.

Without German contributions, the world would not have all the resources it has due to their maps and explorations.