Areas of Study
These areas of study are illustrative of the interests of the physical oceanography faculty and students. However, they are not exclusive. Students are encouraged to formulate their own programs according to their interests. Following each description is a list of the MIT and WHOI faculty involved with that area of study.
Air-sea interaction focuses on the exchange of mass, energy, and momentum across the air-water interface. The ocean circulation is largely driven by these exchanges so clear dynamical understanding of relevant governing processes and accurate characterization of the fluxes under a variety of conditions is crucial.
Processes of interest include surface wave dynamics, mixed layer physics, Langmuir circulation, upper ocean turbulence, oceanic evaporation and precipitation, atmosphere and ocean coupled boundary layers.
The oceanic transport and fate of many natural and anthropological chemicals, such as carbon dioxide, are tightly coupled to the circulation. The establishment and viability of ecological communities, such as those near hydrothermal vents, is also dependent on the oceanic dynamics.
Current research in these areas includes modeling of global bio-geo-chemical cycles, larvae transport in waves and fronts, and interactions of phytoplankton in turbulent flows.
Coastal oceanography concerns the dynamics of flow over the continental slope and shelf up to the beach and the coupling of these flows to the open ocean.
Some current research topics include exchanges of heat, salt and other material between the open ocean and the shelf, wind and buoyancy-driven flows in shallow water, frontal dynamics over variable topography, estuary dynamics and buoyant outflows onto the shelf, and convection in shallow seas.
Geophysical fluid dynamics
This is the study of fluid dynamics applied to geophysical systems. It provides the theoretical foundation for much of physical oceanography.
The problems studied are typically idealized and chosen to illustrate and provide insight into the basic features of oceanic and atmospheric flows. What types of flow do the equations of motion allow? Problems of current interest include large-scale circulation dynamics, stability of flows, turbulence, chaotic motions and transport, nonlinear waves, and vortices.
High latitude/polar oceanography
High-latitude regions play a crucial role in ocean circulation. It is in these regions that the densest waters are produced, which then sink to great depths and fill the abyssal oceans. The interaction of the high latitudes with the subpolar regions is crucial for many climate issues.
Current research areas include dynamics of deep convection, ice dynamics, and air-sea interactions in extreme conditions.
Describing and understanding the dynamics of large-scale oceanic gyres, western boundary currents such as the Gulf Stream, and global water property distributions have been a central goal of physical oceanography since the inception of the discipline. This spans the upper wind-driven ocean to the deep abyssal circulation, from the equator to the poles.
Examples of research topics are dynamics of the Antarctic circumpolar current, float observations of global mid-depth circulation, modeling of basin scale, and global circulation modeling constrained by observations.
Faculty: Magdalena Andres, Amy Bower, Glenn Flierl, Nick Foukal, Jake Gebbie, Steve Jayne, Young-Oh Kwon, Isabela Le Bras, John Marshall, Robert Pickart, Christopher Piecuch, Andrey Proshutinsky, Michael Spall, John Toole, Susan Wijffels, Jiayan Yang, Lisan Yu
Mesoscale refers to motions smaller than the oceanic gyres, yet large enough to be affected by the earth's rotation. These include intense frontal currents, eddies such as Gulf Stream Rings, geostrophic turbulence, flow through straits and over sills.
Mixing and small-scale processes
The rates at which the ocean is able to sequester heat and carbon dioxide are crucially dependent on the small-scale processes that actually mix fluid properties at the molecular level. These processes include turbulence induced by breaking internal waves and double-diffusive phenomena such as salt fingers. The global energetics of mixing derived from the tides and the wind are related to the strength of the thermohaline overturning, so mixing processes are readily related to the large-scale circulation.
Oceans, atmosphere, and climate; paleoclimate
The oceans play a central role in climate. They transport a substantial fraction of the heat from the equatorial zone to the poles, sequester carbon, transport freshwater as part of the global hydrological cycle, act as a regulator to global climate shifts, and yet may also precipitate rapid changes in climate.
Examples of current research on climate includes modeling of the coupled global air-land-ocean system, time-series observations of ocean state, modeling of ocean circulation under ancient continental configurations, and dynamics of thermohaline circulation.