Peter B. Rhines

Ph.D. (Cambridge Univ., UK), Joint appointment as Professor in the Oceanography and Atmospheric Sciences departments and Adjunct Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics of University of Washington, Seattle, USA. Member of the National Academy of Sciences, and Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorological Society. Former Fulbright Scholar, Universidad de Concepción, Chile; Guggenheim Fellow, Cambridge University, England.

I will retire from University of Washington in June of 2017, yet hope to keep in touch with the people and ideas that have shaped my career in Atmospheric Sciences, Oceanography, and global environmental science. My Geophysical Fluid Dynamics lab and this website are likely to disappear then; as they say, 'A good story always needs an ending'.

Main research interests:

Theory of the general circulation of the ocean and its waves and eddies; atmospheric and climate dynamics , particularly in the subpolar oceans; sea-going projects in high-latitude climate change; laboratory experiments and numerical models in oceanography and geophysical fluid dynamics; and computer data atlases and not least, understanding and teaching global environmental studies, from the sun (the mother of most energy) to climate to indigenous populations.

We have 'Ocean Climate' initiatives supported by NSF and NASA, and NOAA. Check my 'Output page' for more. The Physical Oceanography Research link and the other Research links on the main page provide more climate information.

Separate from this is an NSF funded program of basic studies in geophysical fluid dynamics, centering on our lab. The GFD lab is extremely well-equipped both for research and teaching. In addition we have an 1100 square-foot teaching lab which we use for larger classes.

An interesting spin-off of doing this kind of work is a parallel understanding of other worlds! You will see references from the Geology&Geophysics group and Biological Oceanography Group relating to life on Europa and new life forms in sea-floor hot vents. We physicists also deal in the circulations of the planets and stars...particularly the great gas giants.

Jupiter possesses more mass than all the other planets combined. In a sense it is a failed star. Its cloud bands are jet-like zonal circulations and its Great Red Spot is perhaps the largest storm in the Solar System. Our laboratory simulations (see figure below) provide a model for these phenomena, which has been deeply explored by Dr. Gareth Williams at Princeton. We had a special issue of Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences on the topic of jet streams and jet-like ocean currents, in early 2007.

Vorticity is a spin-like quantity which is active throughout oceans and atmospheres. Appearing in the fluid atmosphere and oceans, it is 'inherited' from the rotation of the planets themselves. It gives rise to Rossby waves (image below from our GFD lab) and rather like electromagnetic fields in nature, vorticity and its cousin potential vorticity is the field expressing and controlling the general circulation of the air and the sea.

Teaching and research are both essential components of graduate student life at UW. The links to courses here show examples where students fulfill their TA requirement with a serious involvement in the course (not just grading papers!).

Oceans, atmospheres, climate science take physics or chemistry or biology 'out-of-doors'. Chaos, singular perturbation theory, fractals, and solitons are all examples in which natural, environmentmal science provided the root discovery that grew into a major branch of physics or mathematics. Thus, the intellectual flow is not always from the 'mother sciences' to the 'environmental sciences' but has gone in both directions. Read 'What is Oceanography' on the GFD Lab web page.

Below is a vortex-like fractal, and a vortex sheet roll-up in the Weddell Sea (240km x 360km, made visible by ice).

I have worked on active seagoing programs in the Labrador Sea and Atlantic near Iceland, Faroe Islands and Norway for the past two decades studying climate change and the physics of deep convection. Icebergs there symbolize the interaction of heat, salt and ice in the general circulation (though sea-ice and fresh melt-water from land are more important to the upper ocean). The image below is the first iceberg I visited, in the western Labrador Sea on the research vessel Knorr, in August 1981. It glistens in the sun, and hidden on top is an azure pond of melt water, surrounded by roosting birds, some visible as black specks, gliding above. Likely born from the Jakobshavn Glacier near Ilulisat, Greeland, some months before. Our ship, Woods Hole's R/V Knorr, might fit neatly within the ice cave at center.

Working with Prof. Charlie Eriksen and his group we have launched Seagliders in the northern Atlantic from October 2003 to November 2009 to observe ocean climate, deep convection and the flows communicating between Arctic and Atlantic. This program produced well over 20,000 vertical hydrographic profiles plus velocity, oxygen and bio-optical data. We established ties with the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources in Nuuk (formerly Gothab), the capital of Greenland. This was our base for glider launches. (You can see more about Seagliders on my GFD lab website under 'OUTPUTS'.) More recently we have worked with Faroe Islanders to launch and recover Seagliders between Iceland and Norway. This remarkable community on the wind-swept yet beautiful Faroes has become part of our scientific 'family' with many visits in both directions.

Equally, we have developed strong ties and frequent exchange visits with the University of Bergen, Norway, where oceans and climate are vital to the economy as well as being scientifically interesting.

We have an initiative with NASA to use the altimeter satellites TOPEX/Poseidon and JASON to map climate change and circulation in the high latitude oceans. This remarkable instrument uses a laser beam to sense the height of the sea surface over a few kilometers. See a paper in Science magazine on Earth Day 2004 about the slowing of the Atlantic Ocean circulation (Hakkinen & Rhines, Science vol 304, p. 555-559), or later papers on my GFD lab website.

I must mention courses we have been teaching over the past decade on the changing global environment. The scientific knowledge and skills gathered in researching oceans, atmospheres and climate prepare one well for this complex matter. In the UW undergraduate Honors program for example, a course on Oceans and the Global Environment uses natural and human-related energy cycles to enter into the challenging and compelling matter of global change. In another undergraduate course taught with the Program on the Environment, Earth, Air, Water: the Human Context we have centered on hands-on laboratory experiments as a way to introduce non-science major undergrads to critical environmental issues. This link is for the 2004 year. Our graduate students participate in teaching activities like these as TA's, regularly.

Ironically we also have discovered a new form of altimetry for laboratory experiments that simulate ocean and atmosphere circulations and waves. This uses the water surface on our rotating platform as if it were a telescope mirror with imperfections (its mean shape is a paraboloid). (Isaac Newton invented the reflecting telescope in 1672, and at times telescope makers have used a rotating fluid as a base on which to cast their parabolic mirrors.) The images below show this 'optical altimetry' revealing stationary Rossby waves (left) and stationary inertial waves (right) produced by flow past a mountain, in a 1 meter-diameter cylinder of water. The center image shows Rossby waves emitted from an oscillating source (oscillating mountain!), winding toward the center. This experiment models the high latitude atmosphere or ocean, with the North Pole at the center, as if you are looking down from space. The mountain is where the tight spiral pattern appears. The field visualized is the height variation of the water surface, a few micrometers in amplitude, which accurately shows the pressure and geostrophic flow lines.

Visit the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory: manuscripts, lecture abstracts, essays, stills and animations of laboratory experiments, links with other GFD groups

Other interests:


Revised 10/02