Physical Oceanography

  • Physical Oceanography
    Crewmember Daryl Tobin from the Canadian icebreaker Louis S. St. Laurent secures a line on a mooring that had been tethered to the seafloor in the Arctic Ocean. The instrument is part of the Beaufort Gyre Observing System, which WHOI scientists and their colleagues have deployed and maintained since 2003 to monitor ocean conditions affecting air-sea-ice interactions that influence the Arctic climate system. This mooring was equipped to measure ice thickness, upper ocean currents, and ice drift, and other conditions. The team downloaded data collected over the previous year, replaced batteries, and redeployed the mooring for another year. (Photo by Rick Krishfield,Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

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