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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).
  • Sea Ice
    Two New Studies Substantially Advance Understanding of Currents that Help Regulate Climate: Melting ice on the Iceland and Greenland ice caps are major sources of fresh water into the North Atlantic, which contributes to sea level rise and potentially disrupts global ocean circulation. (Photo by Laura Stevens, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution).
  • 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).
  • Hurricane Laura
    As Hurricane Laura raged, silent sentinels kept watch from below: Hurricane Laura travelling over the Gulf of Mexico on August 26, 2020 as it zeroes in on Texas and Louisiana. (Photo by NASA/ LANCE VIIRS, NetCDF file processing by Supportstorm).
  • 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).
  • An aerial view of Cape Range National Park and Ningaloo Reef off Western Australia.
    Studies investigate marine heatwaves, shifting ocean currents: An aerial view of Cape Range National Park and Ningaloo Reef off Western Australia. A marine heatwave in 2011 led to the first-recorded coral bleaching event at Ningaloo Reef, a World Heritage site, and also caused extensive loss of a nearby kelp forest. (Photo by Darkydoors, Shutter Stock Images).
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • Ice
    North Atlantic Ocean yields clues for better weather predictions: The ability to forecast atmospheric blocking could improve predictions of melting and the acceleration of ice loss in Greenland. “If we know how blocking is going to change, and why it changes, that can help us to better understand why and when Greenland is going to melt,” says WHOI physical oceanographer Young-Oh Kwon. (Photo by Fiamma Straneo © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution).
  • WHOI-operated research vessel Neil Armstrong
    WHOI-NOAA partnership tackles critical gap in climate knowledge: The OOI surface buoy (shown here in 2018 being serviced by the WHOI-operated research vessel Neil Armstrong) will help provide crucial verification of USV and satellite-based models of air-sea interaction in difficult-to-reach high-latitude waters of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. (Photo by James Kuo, ©Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution).

The ocean plays a critical role in Earth’s climate and is necessary to sustain life on our planet, yet we still have much to learn about how it is changing due to natural and anthropogenic forces. As physical oceanographers, we make new observations of the oceans and use physics, mathematics, computer models and statistics to better understand how the oceans work and make more accurate predictions of how they may change in the future. The Physical Oceanography Department at WHOI is home to nearly 150 scientists, technicians, engineers, students and administrative support staff who are addressing fundamental questions in fluid dynamics and applying knowledge on the ocean’s physical environment to help solve some of the most critical issues facing society today. Among the many diverse and inter-disciplinary topics being studied at WHOI are:

  • heat and carbon storage and transport in the oceans
  • sea level rise
  • oceans and hurricanes
  • the water cycle
  • Arctic changes
  • impact of ocean temperature variations on fisheries
  • past climates
  • autonomous vehicles and drifters for regional and global observations
  • sustained measurement systems for long-term ocean and atmospheric monitoring
  • new methods for observing oceans from space

WHOI’s Physical Oceanography department was officially established in 1962, with a scientific staff of 20 and Fritz Fuglister as its first Chair. Department members are increasingly collaborating across traditional disciplinary boundaries to peel back the layers of complexity inherent in Earth’s natural systems.

The department actively participates in the MIT/WHOI Joint Program in Ocean Science and Engineering, with staff teaching courses and advising graduate students. Every summer, about six undergraduate students learn about physical oceanography by working on a research project guided by department scientists. The Department also hosts Post Doctoral scientists 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 also has 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