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Study information

Physical Ocean Processes

Module titlePhysical Ocean Processes
Module codeGEO2457
Academic year2024/5
Module staff

Dr Katy Sheen (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Module description

This module will provide core knowledge of the physical processes than govern our oceans. The module will describe and explain both the distribution of different water masses present in the oceans and the movement of water by phenomena such as tides, waves, ocean currents and turbulent mixing. The important role that these phenomena play in both the global climate system and ocean biogeochemistry will be highlighted. Instrumental platforms from which we make physical measurements in the ocean will also be introduced covering both traditional shipboard measurements and remote sensing techniques to state-of-the-art autonomous vehicles and acoustic mapping.

The module introduces physical concepts from a largely descriptive approach, with practical tank experiments/demonstrations to aid understanding and promote inquiry led learning. The module also includes some computer-lab practical sessions in Matlab to learn how to access and analyse real oceanographic data, and a field trip to collect oceanographic data in the Fal. Regular problem sheets will be provided for students to work through to underpin and embed the concepts covered in the course.

There are no prerequisite modules although first year modules: GEO1420 Atmosphere and Ocean Systems, GEO1405B Earth System Science, and BIO1422 Introduction to Marine Biology will provide a good grounding for this module. Useful complementary modules to take in the second year include: GEO2451 Ice Sheets: Glaciology, Climate and the Oceans; GEO2441 Remote Sensing for Environmental Management; and CSM2181 Oceanography: Engineering Applications. This module will provide an excellent foundation for the final year module GEO3454 Antarctica: Science from a Frozen Continent, and additionally complement third year modules: GEO3461 Arctic Frontiers: Can We Preserve the Arctic Environment?; GEO3455 Marine Climate and Environmental Change; GEO3466 Biological Oceanography; and ENE3003 Marine Renewable Energy. 


Module aims - intentions of the module

This module aims to provide you with a broad overview of the key physical processes which control our oceans, and how they interact with and impact the global climate system and ocean biology. Through a series of interactive lectures and practicals you will gain and understanding of basic ocean hydrography, tides and waves, how heat and energy are transferred within the oceans and how and why the major ocean currents system flow across the globe. We will also focus briefly on coastal and semi-enclosed seas. Techniques used to observe ocean physical processes will also be covered. The module will be taught assuming no mathematical background, mainly using a conceptual approach to understand processes. Some mathematical equations will be included for those interested, but not assessed.

The teaching contributions on this module will also involve elements of research undertaken by staff.


Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Summarise physical concepts in oceanography, and discuss how these processes influence the global climate system and marine biology
  • 2. Describe and understand a range of techniques which marine scientists use to measure the ocean
  • 3. Discuss some key research papers in physical oceanography
  • 4. Use tank demonstrations and inquiry based learning to demonstrate physical ocean processes
  • 5. Perform basic analysis of oceanographic physical data

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 6. Gain a broad understanding of ocean physical processes and how they underpin the global climate system and biological variability within the ocean
  • 7. Describe and evaluate a range of research-informed literature and be able to synthesise research-informed examples from the literature into written work
  • 8. Identify and implement, with limited guidance, appropriate methodologies and theories for solving a range of problems within ocean science
  • 9. Deploy established techniques of analysis, practical investigation, and enquiry within marine science

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 10. Use analytical and basic mathematical skills
  • 11. Work in a small team and deal proficiently with the issues that teamwork requires (i.e. communication, motivation, decision-making, awareness, responsibility, and management skills, including setting and working to deadlines)
  • 12. Develop your own ideas with confidence (inquiry lead learning approach)
  • 13. Respond to novel and unfamiliar problems and develop a logical, reasoned argument
  • 14. Communicate ideas, principles and theories using a variety of formats in a manner appropriate to the intended audience
  • 15. Show task and time management
  • 16. Demonstrate the ability to locate and synthesise academic literature

Syllabus plan

Whilst the content may vary from year to year, it is envisioned that it will cover some or all of the following topics:

  • The composition and physical properties of the ocean (hydrography, characterising water masses and their formation, heat transfer across the ocean surface);
  • An introduction to the key processes that govern ocean dynamics such as global balances of heat and salt, and the role of the Earth’s rotation, pressure gradients, gravity and frictional forces on water motion. These concepts will pave the way into explaining larger scale ocean currents such as the ocean gyres and the global ocean circulation
  • A descriptive overview of the major ocean current systems, water mass distribution, and the meridional overturning circulation
  • An introduction to ocean mixing
  • The basics of ocean waves, their different flavours, and tidal currents
  • An introduction to the coastal ocean and semi-enclosed seas
  • How we observe the oceans using ship-based measurements, acoustic data, satellite sensors, autonomous instruments, and tracers


Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled learning and teaching20Lectures (20 x 1 hour)
Scheduled learning and teaching8Practical sessions & field trip (4 x 1 hours)
Guided independent study122Additional reading, research and preparation for module assessments, problem sheets

Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Short answer questions during lecturesOngoing throughout moduleAll except 4-5, 8, 10, 13Oral
Short answer questions during practicalOngoing during practicalsAll except 15Oral
Working through problem sheetsOngoing throughout moduleAll except 11Checking with solution sheets and using office hours as required

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Practical report (analysis of oceanographic data or problem solving) & mini-essay question 401500 wordsAll except 11Written
Examination601 hour 30 minutesAll except 11Written

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Practical report (analysis of oceanographic data or problem solving) & mini-essay questionEssayAll except 11August ref/def
ExaminationExaminationAll except 11August ref/def

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certified reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally either be deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to sit a further examination. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of referral will count for 100% of the final mark and will be capped at 40%.

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

  • Introduction to physical oceanography, Knauss & Garfield
  • Waves, Tides and Shallow Water Processes, The Open University
  • Seawater: Its Composition, Properties and Behaviours, The Open University
  • Ocean Circulation, The Open University
  • Descriptive Physical Oceanography, Talley, Pickard, Emery & Swift
  • An Invitation to Marine Science, Garrison
  • The atmosphere and ocean, A physical Introduction, Neil Wells

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources

  • ELE page: (the ELE page for this module will provide lecture materials, guidance on assessments, indicative extra reading materials (e.g. journal papers) and feedback forms)

Key words search

Ocean, Physical, Marine, Seawater, Climate

Credit value15
Module ECTS


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