College or University: Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Type of degree: Ph.D.
Brief overview of program: Physical Oceanography deals with observations of the properties and movement of ocean water and the understanding and modeling of these natural phenomena using fundamental concepts of fluid mechanics, applied physics, and mathematics. In other words, physical oceanography concerns how water moves and mixes in the ocean, changes its properties, and carries and distributes dissolved chemicals, nutrients, plankton, and pollutants. The discipline is intertwined with atmospheric and climate studies. A goal of all these fields is understanding the energy and momentum transfer through the seas and across their boundaries.
A central intellectual challenge of physical oceanography is understanding the range of space and time scales that are involved. For example, it is difficult to imagine that the same wind that blows leaves across a lawn is responsible for driving the surface circulation of the Pacific Ocean, yet it is true. Centimeter capillary ripples roughen the sea surface so that the atmosphere can grip the water and produce wind waves. Some of these waves propagate to distant beaches where they break as surf, and transport sediment. But surface waves also deposit momentum into the deeper ocean, driving ocean gyres within which water spirals for decades. On even longer times scales- -centuries to millennia- -the entire stratification of the ocean changes in response to cooling at the poles and evaporation in the tropics.
To observe these processes physical oceanographers use a combination of acoustical, optical, satellite, and in situ measurements. Recent technological advances, such as autonomous sampling and acoustic tomography, are producing an increasingly detailed picture of the three-dimensional ocean circulation. Because of these new technologies, oceanic processes that are now seen dimly, or not at all, will be uncovered. Understanding this exciting new data with powerful computer models, fluid mechanics, and modern descriptive tools is the future of physical oceanography.
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