The Field of Physical Oceanography

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					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:
                                                                                      ˚W              E
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.

                                      Labrador                                   70˚N
patterns. As in the                  NE
                                                 AN                                         Norwegian
                                                                                                               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?

                                                             ntic Current


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.
everything upside-down.”
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/
                                                                                                               16.8%             Nonprofit
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
                                                                                                                     Career Groupings

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:
                                               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:                                             e-mail: