Brian White

Physical Oceanography


Annually, the United States spends billions of dollars to protect and restore the coastal zone, and with increasing pressure from development and climate change, this protection will become both more difficult and more important.My research is directed toward the study of the interactions between fluid mechanics (the physics of water motion that determine waves currents and tides), biological systems (like coastal marsh vegetation or seagrasses), and morphodynamics (the alteration of the landscape by water and sediment).In the laboratory, I have been analyzing basic fluid mechanics problems using cameras and dye to visualize vortices and waves.Out in the field, I have been involved in a project with WHOI larval ecologists, Jesús Pineda and Vicke Starczak. Our team has been conducting measurements in a natural mangrove forest in sheltered coastal lagoons to determine how tides and river currents influence the distribution of larval marine organisms between the bay, the estuary, and the mangrove trees.

In addition to my work in the mangrove forest, I have also been examining the way in which wetland vegetation alters the flow of rivers and tidal channels onto marsh and river floodplains.In particular, I have been analyzing how this altered flow affects the deposition of nutrients, sediments, and biological materials, since this process has implications for the ecosystem existing within the vegetation as well as the rate at which the marsh builds up its bottom elevation.I have also been studying the generation of large internal waves, such as those created by river plumes discharging into the coastal ocean.These large waves, while not visible on the ocean surface, can heave the water by tens of meters internally causing ocean mixing and transporting marine zooplankton between the shore and deeper waters.

Coastal wetlands serve as a buffer from the strong forces of storm surges and waves.Their importance was made clear by the effects of Hurricane Katrina, which was so damaging in part because of the loss of coastal wetlands in the Mississippi Delta.With the potential for global climate change over the next century to cause sea level rise, more intense storms, and warmer seas, scientists must better understand the processes that shape coastal regions and their sensitivity to change.
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