Ocean Literacy Standards


Ocean literacy is an understanding of the ocean’s influence on you—and your influence on the ocean. There are seven Essential Principles of Ocean Literacy comprising 45 Fundamental Concepts. View and/or download the complete Ocean Literacy Guide to explore each of the Essential Principles and Fundamental Concepts.

Visit NMEA’s Ocean Literacy website to learn more!


  1. The ocean is the dominant physical feature on our planet Earth—covering approximately 70% of the planet’s surface. There is one ocean with many ocean basins, such as the North Pacific, South Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic, Indian and Arctic.
  2. An ocean basin’s size, shape and features (islands, trenches, mid-ocean ridges, rift valleys) vary due to the movement of Earth’s lithospheric plates. Earth’s highes peaks, deepest valleys and flattest vast plains are all in the ocean.
  3. Throughout the ocean there is one interconnected circulation system powered by wind, tides, the force of Earth’s rotation (Coriolis effect), the Sun, and water density differences. The shape of ocean basins and adjacent land masses influence the path of circulation.
  4. Sea level is the average height of the ocean relative to the land, taking into account the differences caused by tides. Sea level changes as plate tectonics cause the volume of ocean basins and the height of the land to change. It changes as ice caps on land melt or grow. It also changes as sea water expands and contracts when ocean water warms and cools.
  5. Most of Earth’s water (97%) is in the ocean. Seawater has unique properties: it is saline, its freezing point is slightly lower than fresh water, its density is slightly higher, its electrical conductivity is much higher, and it is slightly basic.
  6. The salt in seawater comes from eroding land, volcanic emissions, reactions at the seafloor, and atmospheric deposition.
  7. The ocean is an integral part of the water cycle and is connected to all of Earth’s water reservoirs via evaporation and precipitation processes.
  8. The ocean is connected to major lakes, watersheds and waterways because all major watersheds on Earth drain to the ocean. Rivers and streams transport nutrients, salts, sediments and pollutants from watersheds to estuaries and to the ocean.
  9. Although the ocean is large, it is finite and resources are limited.
  1. Many earth materials and geochemical cycles originate in the ocean. Many of the sedimentary rocks now exposed on land were formed in the ocean. Ocean life laid down the vast volume of siliceous and carbonate rocks.
  2. Sea level changes over time have expanded and contracted continental shelves, created and destroyed inland seas, and shaped the surface of land.
  3. Erosion-the wearing away of rock, soil and other biotic and abiotic earth materials-occurs in coastal areas as wind, waves, and currents in rivers and the ocean move sediments.
  4. Sand consists of tiny bits of animals, plants, rocks and minerals. Most beach sand is eroded from land sources and carried to the coast by rivers, but sand is also eroded from coastal sources by surf. Sand is redistributed by waves and coastal currents seasonally.
  5. Tectonic activity, sea level changes, and force of waves influence the physical structure and landforms of the coast.
  1. Most of the oxygen in the atmosphere originally came from the activities of photosynthetic organisms in the ocean. This accumulation of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere was necessary for life to develop and be sustained on land.
  2. The first life is thought to have started in the ocean. The earliest evidence of life is found in the ocean.
  3. The ocean provided and continues to provide water, oxygen and nutrients, and moderates the climate needed for life to exist on Earth ( Essential Principles 1,3, and 5).
  1. Ocean life ranges in size from the smallest virus to the largest animal that has lived on Earth, the blue whale.
  2. Most life in the ocean exists as microbes. Microbes are the most important primary producers in the ocean. Not only are they the most abundant life form in the ocean, they have extremely fast growth rates and life cycles.
  3. Some major groups are found exclusively in the ocean. The diversity of major groups of organisms is much greater in the ocean than on land.
  4. The ocean is three-dimensional, offering vast living space and diverse habitats from the surface through the water column to the seafloor. Most of the living space on Earth is in the ocean.
  5. Ocean habitats are defined by environmental factors. Due to interactions of abiotic factors such as salinity, temperature, oxygen, pH, light, nutrients, pressure, substrate and circulation, ocean life is not evenly distributed temporally or spatially, i.e., it is “patchy.” Some regions of the ocean support more diverse and abundant life than anywhere on Earth, while much of the ocean is considered a desert.
  6. There are deep ocean ecosystems that are independent of energy from sunlight and photosynthetic organisms.
  7. Hydrothermal vents, submarine hot springs, methane cold seeps, and whale falls rely only on chemical energy and chemosynthetic organisms to support life.
  8. Tides, waves and predation cause vertical zonation patterns along the shore, influencing the distribution and diversity of organisms.
  9. Estuaries provide important and productive nursery areas for many marine and aquatic species.
  1. The ocean is the last and largest unexplored place on Earth-less than 5% of it has been explored. This is the great frontier for the next generation’s explorers and researchers, where they will find great opportunities for inquiry and investigation.
  2. Understanding the ocean is more than a matter of curiosity. Exploration, inquiry and study are required to better understand ocean systems and processes.
  3. Over the last 40 years, use of ocean resources has increased significantly, therefore the future sustainability of ocean resources depends on our understanding of those resources and their potential and limitations.
  4. New technologies, sensors and tools are expanding our ability to explore the ocean. Ocean scientists are relying more and more on satellites, drifters, buoys, subsea observatories and unmanned submersibles.
  5. Use of mathematical models is now an essential part of ocean sciences. Models help us understand the complexity of the ocean and of its interaction with Earth’s climate. They process observations and help describe the interactions among systems.
  6. Ocean exploration is truly interdisciplinary. It requires close collaboration among biologists, chemists, climatologists, computer programmers, engineers, geologists, meteorologists, and physicists, and new ways of thinking.

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