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Optical variability occurs in the near‐surface and upper ocean on very short time and space scales (e.g., milliseconds and millimeters and less) as well as greater scales. This variability is caused by solar, meteorological, and other physical forcing as well as biological and chemical processes that affect optical properties and their distributions, which in turn control the propagation of light across the air‐sea interface and within the upper ocean. Recent developments in several technologies and modeling capabilities have enabled the investigation of a variety of fundamental and applied problems related to upper ocean physics, chemistry, and light propagation and utilization in the dynamic near‐surface ocean. The purpose here is to provide background for and an introduction to a collection of papers devoted to new technologies and observational results as well as model simulations, which are facilitating new insights into optical variability and light propagation in the ocean as they are affected by changing atmospheric and oceanic conditions.