Society's needs for a network of in situ ocean observing systems cross many areas of earth and marine science. Here we review the science themes that benefit from data supplied from ocean observatories. Understanding from existing studies is fragmented to the extent that it lacks the coherent long-term monitoring needed to address questions at the scales essential to understand climate change and improve geo-hazard early warning. Data sets from the deep sea are particularly rare with long-term data available from only a few locations worldwide. These science areas have impacts on societal health and well-being and our awareness of ocean function in a shifting climate.