The role played by engineers in marine science and technology may prove to be more significant than their role on land. The particular difficulties associated with engineering in the marine environment call for new materials, new methods of analysis and design, and the most advanced technical skills available.
Coastal and maritime civil engineers have long been involved with the design and construction of seawalls, jetties, harbours and the associated problems of coastal and beach erosion. Modern design methods employ mathematical models which enable computers to simulate the effects of waves and currents on these structures and to predict the extent of undesirable effects such as erosion, flooding and storm surges following large storms and cyclones.
Ocean civil engineers can specialise in design and construction of structures, including platforms for oil drilling or deep-water mining operations. An understanding of the wave climate at the construction site, provided by computer studies of wave generation and wave characteristics, is vital for the successful design of such structures. Electrical engineers develop computer-based control systems which continuously monitor the platform's position and make corrections to compensate for fluctuations in wind, tides and currents. In this way, computers keep the platform located precisely over a predetermined spot on the sea floor, which may be several kilometres below the surface.
Mechanical, civil and electronics engineers are developing new instruments for measuring, monitoring and exploring the underwater environment. One-atmosphere pressure suits can allow a diver to move and perform tasks at depths of kilometres and to photograph and sample the abyssal plains. However, manned dives are increasingly giving way to surface-controlled unmanned submersibles, which are now used routinely in jobs as diverse as checking and maintenance of man-made structures such as rig platforms and the exploration of the deepest parts of the ocean to help answer questions about the earth's crust.
The marine environment in Australia is characterised by a very rich interaction between physical, chemical and biological processes. Industry, commerce, urbanisation and recreational activities in turn interact with the natural system. These interactions are causing a host of problems, including the impact of pollution on coastal ecosystems and over-exploitation of natural resources. An integrated approach to the problems of management of man in nature and development is required, taking into account all relevant processes and interactions within the coastal and marine environment. Coastal engineers are involved in the investigation and assessment of coastal and marine environments, and planning for their use, development and conservation. Systems engineers, as well as civil and environmental engineers, contribute the special skills required for computer-assisted mathematical analysis and the co-ordination of multi-disciplinary studies.
Photo: The Gold Coast seaway was constructed to overcome instability and navigational problems at the entrance to the Nerang River. Coastal engineers designed breakwaters, a wave-break island and a sand-bypass system which pumps sand across the entrance to maintain the natural alongshore movement of sand and minimise adverse effects upon the adjoining coastline.