Physical Oceanography and Dynamical Meteorology at UBC

Undergraduate research projects in Howe Sound

  • What is physical oceanography?
  • Physical oceanography research at UBC
  • Physical oceanography faculty at UBC
  • Undergraduate studies
  • Graduate studies

  • What is physical oceanography?

    Walk along the seashore and look out over the water. You will see waves rolling in from the ocean, possibly building up into breakers, which, as they reach the shore, come crashing down into turbulent muddy foam. You will see boats fighting (or using) the wind and tide in their travels. Along the water's edge are pieces of driftwood, battered fishing gear, and maybe even a bottle with a message.
    Where did it come from?
    Where will it go to?

    People who have decided to spend their lives trying to find answers to this kinds of questions are called Physical Oceanographers. Basically, we try to understand why water goes from one place to another and how this happens. And not just water, but also the things that are in it - salt, heat, pollutants.

    These questions aren't academic either. What if instead of a bottle we had an oil spill? Or a sewage outflow? We catch fish in the ocean - where does their food come from? What happens if a storm blows, or temperatures rise? Is the answer different in summer than in winter? Understanding the physics of the ocean is a vital first step in understanding everything else about the ocean - and here in Canada we have a lot of ocean around us!

    Knowing how the ocean works doesn't just stop at the water's surface. The ocean and the atmosphere work together to produce our climate, and there are many similarities in the physics that control both systems. There is a lot of overlap between oceanography and atmospheric science.

    Practically speaking, there are 4 basic ways in which we approach the problem of understanding the ocean:

    Although most physical oceanographers specialize in one of these areas, we often end up dabbling in any (or all) of the other approaches too - it all depends on where the scientific questions lead us! And sometimes we end up outside the oceans altogether. Often we can learn about certain flow patterns in the ocean by studying wind patterns in the atmosphere (and vice versa).

    Physical Oceanography at UBC

    Physical oceanographers at UBC are involved in projects ranging from local to global, from the workings of a local harbour to climate change in the tropical Pacific to the oceanography of the Arctic. This is a sampling of the problems we are currently thinking about (for more information, see the descriptions by faculty member). Some of these problems are "pure physics", and others are tied into larger efforts in understanding biological, climatic, and other problems.
    Dept. workboat in a coastal fjord

    Several projects fall into the area of "Estuarine Dynamics". An estuary is a region in which fresh water (from rivers) comes into contact with and is modified by seawater. Freshwater runoff is driven by summer warming, but the effects of fresh water can magnify in coastal regions to produce large currents. Steve Pond has been interested for many years in the wonderfully strange dynamics of the deep fjords on this coast. Rich Pawlowicz is making a study of how the complicated flows in the Gulf Islands control the circulation of the whole West Coast.

    A little further out into the ocean, Susan Allen is interested in how deep ocean water upwells onto the continental shelf in summer, and Lionel Pandolfo has been involved in efforts to understand the longterm winds offshore and their effects on weather and coastal ecology.

    Faculty members are also interested in a number of coupled ocean/atmosphere (or purely atmospheric) problems. A recent topic that has made the news is El Nino - a complicated phenomenon in which the ocean and the atmosphere in the tropical Pacific work together to change the world's weather patterns. William Hsieh is developing a way to predict this phenomenon. Lionel Pandolfo is looking at the ways in which wave patterns in the atmosphere spread the effects of El Nino all over the world.


    Whenever a heavy fluid flows downhill underneath a lighter one, this is called a gravity current. Gravity currents and so-called hydraulic effects are fascinating phenomena that underlie many of the fast-changing events that we observe in the ocean and over land.


    Finally, several faculty members have some interests in the Arctic. This vast and still relatively unknown region to our North is one of the frontiers of oceanography.

    Physical Oceanography Faculty

    More information about faculty members and their work can be found in their individual research pages.

    Undergraduate Studies

    The Joint Honours Program in Physics and Oceanography is intended as a strong undergraduate program for students interested in eventually pursuing graduate studies in physical oceanography (most people feel that a graduate degree is necessary to call oneself a physical oceanographer).  This program is structured to provide a firm grounding in basic science, as well as an introduction to the problems and techniques used in studying the oceans, and includes a field course and the opportunity for independent research.

     The Applied Science Faculty offers a similar opportunity as the Ocean option of the Engineering Physics degree.

     For those students not interested in an Honours program a majors in Physics, Geophysics, Mathematics or Computer Science (including Math 316/Phys 312) can be combined with OCGY 308, 309, 409, 413 and 414 (taken as electives) to give a good introduction to physical oceanography.  A multi-disciplinary Oceanography Majors program is planned for 1999.

      For six credits of introduction to oceanography, we offer EOSC 314/315 for Arts students and OCGY 308/309 for science or applied science students.

    Details for all of these programs are available from the Dept. of Earth and Ocean Sciences, as well as on-line .

    Working up the data in the ship's laboratory

    Graduate studies

    A strong graduate program has always been the backbone of physical oceanography at UBC. Both MSc and PhD degrees are offered, and we welcome inquiries from all interested parties.

    The descriptions above show some, but not all, of our research interests.  If you want more info, fill out a preapplication, or contact any of us through the email addresses given in our research pages which are linked above.  Although we do not have any formal deadlines and applications will be considered year-round, receipt of a full application by January 15th is preferred.

    Deploying an ADCP (Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler)

    Last changed 30/July/99. Questions and comments to R. Pawlowicz,