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Physical Oceanography

  • Isabela Le Bras teaches high school students in Ensenada, Mexico about the Coriolis effect.
    Isabela Le Bras teaches high school students in Ensenada, Mexico about the Coriolis effect. (Photo by one of her students).
  • The R/V Neil Armstrong emerging from Prince Christian Sound
    $8.3M award to WHOI extends observational record of critical climate research: The R/V Neil Armstrong emerging from Prince Christian Sound, which connects western Greenland to eastern Greenland, during an Overturning in the Subpolar North Atlantic Program (OSNAP) expedition. (Photo by Kent Sheasley, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) From PO Research Highlights, March 18 2020.
  • Physical oceanographers from WHOI, NASA, and Univ. of North Carolina at the NASA Ames Hyperwall visualization center examine the evolution of sea surface salinity in a computer simulation.
    Physical oceanographers from WHOI, NASA, and Univ. of North Carolina at the NASA Ames Hyperwall visualization center examine the evolution of sea surface salinity in a computer simulation. (Photo by Erin Czech, NASA Ames Research Center).
  • A Spray underwater glider on the surface just after deployment from Seychelles Coast Guard Patrol Ship Etoile in the western equatorial Indian Ocean.
    A Spray underwater glider (http://gliders.whoi.edu) on the surface just after deployment from Seychelles Coast Guard Patrol Ship Etoile in the western equatorial Indian Ocean. (Photo by Robert E. Todd, 10 March 2017, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution).
  • Joe Fellows prepares a syntactic sphere outside the Mooring Lab
    Joe Fellows prepares a syntactic sphere outside the Mooring Lab (Photo by Tom Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution).
  • Fossil Porites coral (above) from the southern Mentawai Islands (Indonesia) in the eastern Indian Ocean were used to reconstruct Indian Ocean Dipole variability over previous centuries.
    Indian Ocean phenomenon spells climate trouble for Australia: Fossil Porites coral (above) from the southern Mentawai Islands (Indonesia) in the eastern Indian Ocean were used to reconstruct Indian Ocean Dipole variability over previous centuries. (Photo by Nerilie Abram, Australian National University). From PO Research Highlights, March 10 2020.
  • Ryan Laffey prepares glass ball hardhat flotation in the Mooring Lab
    Ryan Laffey prepares glass ball hardhat flotation in the Mooring Lab (Photo by Tom Kleindinst, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution).
  • Climate group discussion. Postdoc and students discuss their climate research with Associate Scientist Caroline Ummenhofer (front)
    Climate group discussion. Postdoc and summer research students discuss how the ocean affects the water cycle during the last millennium. Ocean properties from the Indian Ocean based on historic observational data are compared with results from computer simulations. (Photo by Justin Buchli , Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution).
  • WHOI researchers head back to sea after "pause" in research expeditions: WHOI science team members will be onboard the R/V Neil Armstrong for 11 days to service the ocean observation equipment that is part of the National Science Foundation funded Ocean Observatories Initiative.
  • Spray underwater glider
    A Spray underwater glider on the surface just after deployment in the Gulf Stream offshore of Miami, Florida. Photo by Robert E. Todd, 24 July 2019.

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 September 2019, the department had a staff of 30 scientists, 20 emeritus, 18 postdocs, 20 joint program students, 53 technical staff, and 10 administrative staff.. 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.

Amy Bower, Chair
Physical Oceanography Department