Physical oceanography is a sub-discipline of oceanography that involves the study of waves, tides, and currents; the ocean-atmosphere relationship that influences weather and climate; and the transmission of light and sound in the oceans. The scales of these processes range through spatial scales from centimeters to global and time scales from seconds to centuries.

“Physical oceanographers seek to understand why, where, and how water moves, and the consequences of these movements. Their work may include interdisciplinary scientific investigations of ocean temperature, salinity, density, circulation patterns, currents, eddies, gyres, coastal processes and tides, winds, and/or waves. Physical oceanographers may also study the interaction between the ocean and its boundaries (land, seafloor, and atmosphere) and the relationship between the sea, weather, and climate. They may also examine they physical mechanisms responsible for the distributionof sea ice and polar ice sheets.”

Education Requirements

  • B.S. in a physical science (including three years of physics and mathematics)
  • a PhD is necessary for most independent research and for college teaching jobs

Physical oceanographers may have a variety of responsibilities depending on the specific nature of their job. These could include:

  • Research ocean properties (temperature, density, salinity, wave motions, tides, and currents) and their distribution across the global ocean
    • Theory, direct observation, and/or computer simulation
  • Examine the ocean-atmosphere relationship that influences weather and climate
    • Develop ocean/atmosphere models
    • Investigate how conditions at sea relate to both flood and drought conditions on land
  • Investigate water/coastline interactions (e.g. erosion)
    • Collaborate with land developers or planners to avoid placing homes, buildings, or other types of developments where the ocean might destroy them

Knowledge and Skills

Basic skills and abilities may include:

  • Knowledge and understanding of ocean sampling equipment and sensors
  • Data collection, management, analysis (including statistical analysis)
    • Using statistical models of laboratory and field data to investigate hypotheses and make predictions
    • Analyzing and interpreting data from samples, measurements, ocean instruments, and/or remote sensing aids
  • Computing skills
    • Computer programming
    • Computer simulation
    • Mathematical modeling
    • Digital mapping
    • Database software (catalog, analyze and research data)
  • Interpersonal skills
    • Ability to cooperate and collaborate with others- physical oceanographers often interact with other scientists, engineers, meteorologists, and government officials. When working in research teams, physical oceanographers have to effectively communicate to explain research results or other aspects of their work.
    • Ability to teach and mentor undergraduate and graduate students (university-level teaching positions)