The Field of Physical Oceanography
research. Training in physical oceanography
was, in the past, largely by apprenticeship.
Even today, many of the skills required to
make measurements at sea are not found in
books. However, many important concepts
of physical oceanography are now taught as
physics of the oceans.
Physical oceanography is a comparatively
young field, and important fundamental
findings can be made during graduate thesis
research. Henry Stommel, who had long
affiliations with both WHOI and MIT, was
one of physical oceanography’s most
imaginative thinkers. Words he wrote
describing his own mid 20th century
introduction to the field are still true today.
He said: "When I first read the treatise, The
Oceans, by Sverdrup, Johnson, and Fleming
All three WHOI research vessels in port, Knorr is in the foreground with Oceanus and Atlantis on the opposite side of the pier.
(published in 1942), I was overawed by how
much seemed to be known about the ocean.
he central goal of physical oceanogra- wide variety of oceanic motions requires a It is a valuable book, which even today has
phy is to describe and explain the broad range of scientific skills and approaches much to recommend it, especially Sverdrup’s
complex motions of the ocean from the most descriptive to the most own outstanding chapter 15 about water
occurring over a very wide range of time and theoretical. Indeed, physical oceanography is masses; but it left the reader with few hints
space scales. There are grand persistent one of the few areas of physics in which a that there is much left to do.
currents, like the Gulf Stream, and transient scientist can be and often must be both an “I came across the following remarkable
waves and eddies, observationalist and a passage in the preface that says the following:
from high frequency theoretician. Observa- ‘At risk of premature generalizations, we have
acoustic waves to 80
˚ N tional oceanography preferred definite statements ... to conflicting
vortical flows that are uses a variety of interpretations, believing that the treatment
dynamically similar to GREENLAND sophisticated instru- selected would be more stimulating.’ For me
atmospheric weather ments that may be it seemed more deadly.
patterns. As in the NE
shipborne or mounted “Here I was confronted with a large,
atmosphere, there are on aircraft or satellites learned book full of facts and statements; it
intense frontal r we
to measure such was formidable to read; it seemed complete
systems. Important No
oceanic properties as and exhaustive; whole courses of lectures
mixing and stirring A tl a
temperature, sea were based upon it. What was there to do?
across these fronts surface height, and How could one get a handhold, or a start, on
A schematic of the currents that flow into and out of the
are accomplished by velocity. Submerged making progress beyond this massive tome of
Northern North Atlantic.
a variety of physical neutrally buoyant information? Wasn’t everything already done?
processes, some of great subtlety, such as the floats are tracked for hundreds of kilometers in “And then, little by little, innocent and
phenomenon of “salt fingers” that occur on a studies of ocean currents. Collection and unsophisticated questions began to suggest
centimeter scale. Significant scientific analysis of these and other kinds of data themselves, and it became evident that the
problems arise from the interaction of the provide an essential descriptive foundation.
ocean and the atmosphere as they drive each Theoretical oceanography seeks to provide a
other through exchanges of mass, momen- dynamical explanation for the observed
tum, and energy that are crucial in determin- flows. Again, a wide variety of tools are
ing Earth's climate. Physical processes along needed: elaborate numerical simulations,
continental margins are strongly affected by analysis of idealized model problems with
atmospheric forcing and the resulting current modern mathematical methods, and laboratory
and wave systems in this complicated region experimentation all play important roles.
are of great importance to the climate and Students in the Joint Program have the
ecology of coastal regions. opportunity, and indeed are encouraged, to The famous MIT dome in Killian Court is the site of the Joint
The task of describing and explaining this develop skills and experience in both forms of Program graduation ceremonies.
Joint Program courses are taught at both the MIT and Joint Program students enjoy two complementary campuses:
WHOI campuses, which are linked via teleconferencing. The MIT campus (above) in an eclectic metropolis, and the
coastal-village charm of the WHOI campus.
Graduate Study of Physical Oceanography
Joint Program students
are required to become
familiar with the principal
areas of physical oceanog-
raphy in addition to
demonstrating a thorough
knowledge of at least one
field of specialization.
Students are generally
encouraged to obtain a
strong foundation in fluid
Watchstanders Gwyneth Hufford, a JP graduate, and Mike Ohmart
mechanics, mathematics, tethered to a safety line, await word from the Main Lab to launch an
and oceanographic expendable bathythermograph through the tube at right. This photo was
observations. A core taken on the day that marked both the coldest weather of the cruise (2˚F)
and the ship’s closest approach to the Labrador ice edge.
curriculum of four courses
provides a coherent base
At the WHOI pier, scientists and technicians prepare for developing an individual program of study in physical oceanography. Each
R/V Knorr for a research cruise.
student formulates, with the assistance of academic advisors drawn from both
state of physical oceanographic knowledge WHOI and MIT, a program of studies involving core courses, more advanced
was supported by a dynamic vacuum. subjects particular to the student’s area of research, seminars, and research
“During the intervening 40 [now more activities. Place of residence is determined by the student’s program of study and
than 50] years, we oceanographers have research. Typically, Joint Program students reside in the Cambridge area during
gathered much valuable data; we have their first two years, as the majority of the courses are given at MIT. Some students
clarified the formulation of many important then reside in Woods Hole for the period of their thesis research.
ideas and learned from our mathematically Courses available to Joint Program students include formal courses offered at both
talented colleagues a great deal about MIT and WHOI and through cross-registration at Harvard. Many students find it
geophysical fluid dynamics; we have had helpful to take advantage of course offerings in climate dynamics, meteorology,
interesting ideas and insights and con- applied mathematics, and civil engineering. Formal courses are supplemented by
structed analytical and numerical models; weekly seminars and directed studies based on the needs of each student.
we have developed a new technology of
instrumentation. However, despite a vast Undergraduate Preparation
accumulated literature, our ignorance of
how the ocean actually works is vaster still. Satisfactory preparation for graduate work in physical oceanography is usually
“For anyone coming into the field this provided by undergraduate curricula in the physical sciences, engineering, math-
ought to be good news. The vein of new good ematics, or meteorology. A background in mathematics (up through partial differen-
ideas and simple insights is not worked out. If tial equations) and physics (advanced classical mechanics and thermodynamics) is
you just stick to thinking about the ocean all recommended. If opportunity affords, further preparation in mathematics and
the time, you’re bound to come up with physics or engineering are an advantage. Students who lack some of the required
something that no one has thought of before, background may be admitted with the provision that they make up deficiencies early
or to find some unexpected facts that turn in their program.
Joint Program in Oceanography and Applied Ocean Science and Engineering
In 1968 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Woods Hole Oceanographic
Institution (WHOI) entered into a unique cooperative academic program leading to graduate 11.1%
degrees in oceanography and in oceanographic engineering. The guiding principle for this Industry Academic/
venture is to provide the highest quality graduate education for each student. In the inter- Research
vening years, the Joint Program has awarded 580 M.S. and Ph.D. degrees, and recipients have Other
become important leaders in ocean and earth science.
Joint Program Graduate
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is an independent, coeducational, privately endowed
university. It is organized into five academic schools: Architecture and Planning, Engineering,
Humanities and Social Science, Management, and Science. Within these schools there are 21
academic departments in addition to many interdepartmental laboratories, centers, and divisions
that extend beyond the traditional departmental boundaries. Total enrollment is approximately 9,800
students, about evenly divided between undergraduates and graduate students. The faculty numbers
almost 1,100, with a total teaching staff of over 2,000. Involvement in research is an integral part of
each student’s experience and MIT has extensive research facilities, some of which are unique among
educational institutions. MIT’s 147-acre campus extends for more than a mile along the Cambridge
side of the Charles River basin facing historic Beacon Hill and the central sections of Boston.
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
The Woods Oceanographic Institution is a private, nonprofit research facility dedicated to the
study of marine science and to the education of marine scientists and engineers. It is the largest in-
dependent oceanographic research and education institution in the nation, with a staff of approxi-
mately 750 scientists, engineers, and support personnel. The Institution is organized into five scien-
tific departments: Applied Ocean Physics & Engineering, Biology, Geology & Geophysics, Marine
Chemistry & Geochemistry, and Physical Oceanography. Other scientific and educational facilities
in the immediate area include the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), and the Center for Marine
and Coastal Geology of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). The Institution’s research fleet includes
the 274-foot Atlantis, 279-foot Knorr, the 177-foot Oceanus, the three-person submersible Alvin and
remotely operated vehicles such as Argo and Medea/Jason. The Institution is located in the village of
Woods Hole on the southwest corner of Cape Cod, about 80 miles south of Boston and MIT.
For Joint Program application forms and additional information,
see our web page: http://web.mit.edu/mit-whoi/www/
or write, call, or e-mail either:
Education Office • Clark Laboratory 223 Joint Program Office • 54-911
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Massachusetts Institute of Technology
MS #31 77 Massachusetts Avenue
Woods Hole, MA 02543-1541 Cambridge, MA 02139
(508) 289-2219 • FAX (508) 457-2188 (617) 253-7544 • FAX (617) 253-9784
e-mail: email@example.com e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org