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Sea change: The World Ocean Circulation Experiment and the productive limits of ocean variability

Lehman, J. (2021) 'Sea change: The World Ocean Circulation Experiment and the productive limits of ocean variability.', Science, technology, & human values., 46 (4). pp. 839-862.


The ability to quantify the relationship between the ocean and the atmosphere is an enduring challenge for global-scale science. This paper analyzes the World Ocean Circulation Experiment (WOCE, 1990–2002), an international oceanographic program that aimed to provide data for decadal-scale climate modeling and for the first time produce a “snapshot” of ocean circulation against which future change could be measured. WOCE was an ambitious project that drew on extensive international collaboration and emerging technologies that continue to play a significant role in how the global environment is known and governed. However, a main outcome of WOCE was an encounter with ocean variability: the notion that the ocean is governed not by the circular currents shown in the popular “conveyor-belt” diagram but by eddies, filaments, jets, and other nonlinear forces. This paper suggests the concept of “productive limits” as an analytic for understanding how ocean variability both prompted new forms of knowledge and the development of a global knowledge infrastructure that is contingent, uneven, and fully entwined with geopolitical dynamics.

Item Type:Article
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Available under License - Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial.
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Available under License - Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial.
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Publisher statement:This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 License ( which permits non-commercial use, reproduction and distribution of the work without further permission provided the original work is attributed as specified on the SAGE and Open Access pages (
Date accepted:03 July 2020
Date deposited:04 August 2020
Date of first online publication:30 August 2020
Date first made open access:25 August 2020

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