Physical Oceanography

Researchers from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) watch a Slocum Glider take measurements off the coast of South Africa. Physical oceanographer Louis St. Laurent collaborates with UKZN professor Derek Stretch to measure minute changes in the properties of Sodwana Bay, which is home to charismatic species like whale sharks and manta rays.

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  (Photo by Sean Whelan, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)[ LESS ]

Research specialist Frank Bahr (left) and physical oceanographer Glen Gawarkiewicz analyze data on currents collected off Cape Hatteras. In 2015, Gawarkiewicz and his colleagues published a paper that analyzed the relationship between sea level and waters across the continental shelf-break, and found that sea level anomalies are a predictor of shelf water temperature.

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  (Photo by Chris Linder, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)[ LESS ]

Data from the ice-covered Arctic Ocean is hard to come by because the region is remote and the environment hostile. Scientists and engineers overcome these challenges by deploying ice-based observatories (IBOs) like this one, which makes continuous measurements that paint a picture of interactions between the atmosphere, ice, and ocean.

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  (Photo by Rick Krishfield, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)[ LESS ]

Increased flow of ice from glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica has tripled the contribution of continental ice sheets to sea level rise over the last 20 years. Physical oceanographer Fiamma Straneo uses a variety of methods – from helicopters to moorings to autonomous vehicles – to understand what is driving these changes.

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  (Photo by Rebecca Jackson, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)[ LESS ]

MIT-WHOI Joint Program student Isabela Le Bras stands by a flotation sphere, which keeps a mooring, a string of instruments anchored to the ocean floor, upright in the water column. Moorings help to monitor the velocity, temperature, and salinity of currents, and help scientists understand how ocean circulation affects Earth’s climate system.

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A satellite image shows Helheim Glacier, one of many glaciers that drain ice from the Greenland Ice Sheet into fjords connected to the ocean. In 2013, a team of physical oceanographers deployed a mooring in Sermilik Fjord to examine whether it links warming ocean waters to the glacier, spurring melting and raising sea levels.

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  (Image courtesy of Fiamma Straneo, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)[ LESS ]

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The scientific discipline of Physical Oceanography involves the exploration and study of physical processes in the ocean, the interaction of the ocean with the atmosphere, and the ocean’s role in the Earth’s climate and ecosystems. Some of the major themes of physical oceanography are the dynamics of ocean currents on spatial scales ranging from centimeters to global, the variability of these currents on time-scales from seconds to millennia, ocean wave phenomena, the distribution of heat and salt and other water properties and their transport by currents through the ocean basins, the exchange of momentum, heat, freshwater and gasses between the ocean and the atmosphere, and the interactions between oceans and rivers, estuaries, sea-ice, terrestrial-ice and marginal seas. Physical oceanography has important applications in global climate studies and coastal systems, as well as being a key element in interdisciplinary studies of primary production, hydrothermal vents, and the exchange and storage of carbon dioxide.

The Physical Oceanography department was established as a separate entity at WHOI in 1962 with a scientific staff of 20 and Fritz Fuglister as the first Chair. As of August 2014, the department had a staff of 31 scientists joined by a technical staff of 34. The department is an active participant in the MIT/WHOI Joint Program, with staff giving courses and advising graduate students. In addition to a population of students, the Department hosts a number of Post Doctoral Scholars/Investigators who gain research experience during their appointments while also providing an influx of new ideas.

The Department has a strong tradition of seagoing science, and maintains leadership in open ocean, coastal and Arctic observational studies.  The seagoing staff has evolved into a number of technical and scientific groups with specialized expertise and equipment. While ocean observation remains a core strength, the Department increasingly demonstrates expertise in analytical and numerical studies to develop better understanding of fundamental ocean processes, which in turn stimulates and supports the seagoing science.

Albert J. Plueddemann, Chair
Physical Oceanography Department