Physical Oceanography

Physical oceanography focuses on describing and understanding the evolving patterns of ocean circulation and fluid motion, along with the distribution of its properties such as temperature, salinity and the concentration of dissolved chemical elements and gases. The ocean as a dynamic fluid is studied at a wide range of spatial scales, from the centimeter scales relevant to turbulent microstructure through the many thousand kilometer scales of the ocean gyres and global overturning circulation. Approaches include theory, direct observation, and computer simulation. Our research frequently takes place in the context of important multidisciplinary issues including the dynamics and predictability of global climate and the sustainability of human use in coastal and estuarine regions.

The diversity of the program in physical oceanography is greatly increased by numerous joint and affiliate positions with two world-class research laboratories, the University's Applied Physics Laboratory and with the nearby NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, where many of our graduate students choose to do their research.

Meet Our Faculty

Areas of Student Research

Circulation and Climate - The planetary-scale ocean circulation is the keystone of physical, chemical and biological oceanography and an important part of the Earth's climate system.

Coastal and Estuarine Processes - Polluted runoff and sewage, overfishing, and even global climate change, are affecting these regions far more rapidly and extensively than the deep sea, threatening marine ecosystems, human health, and sustainable fisheries.

Geophysical Fluid Dynamics - Geophysical fluid dynamics is the study of fluid motion on a rotating planet.

Polar Oceanography - Oceanographers in the APL's Polar Science Center study the physical mechanisms responsible for the distribution of sea ice and polar ice sheets, the circulation of high-latitude oceans, and the interactions between the atmosphere, ocean and cryosphere that play an important role in regulating Earth's climate.

Tropical Oceanography - The tropical oceans illustrate the effects of close coupling with the atmosphere on many timescales.  Many students in this area have advistors at NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory.

Waves, Turbulence and Mixing - Ocean processes occur on a huge range of spatial scales, from the global circulation many megameters in size, to the scales of millimeters to centimeters where molecular diffusion and viscosity act.  Many students in this area have advisors at the Applied Physics Lab.