Physical Oceanography (PO)

Physical Oceanography is the field of study that deals with mechanisms of energy transfer through the sea and across its boundaries, and with the physical interactions of the sea with its surroundings, especially including the influence of the seas on the climate of the atmosphere. Research activities within this curricular group are both observational and theoretical and include:

  • Study of the general circulations of the oceans, including the relations of ocean currents to driving forces and constraints of the ocean basins
  • Fluctuations of currents, and the transport of properties
  • The mechanisms of transport of energy, momentum, and physical substances within the sea and across its boundaries
  • Properties of wind waves, internal waves, tsunami, and planetary waves
  • The thermodynamic description of the sea as a system not in equilibrium
  • Optical and acoustic properties of the sea
  • The influence of surf on near-shore currents and the transport of sediments

Requirements for Admission

In addition to the general requirements for admission to the PhD program listed here, a major in a physical science, including three years of physics and mathematics, is required.

Program of Study


Students admitted to Climate-Ocean-Atmosphere Program (COAP) choose a curricular group by the end of the fall quarter. This choice is aided by the student’s guidance committee, which includes a chair from one of the COAP curricular groups. The guidance committee will help to arrange an individually tailored set of first-year courses for the student, and to ensure that the student has taken all necessary courses to prepare for the departmental exam.

During the year, students may be supported in a variety of ways, but by the end of the spring quarter students must choose a research adviser. After the first year the guidance committee is dissolved, and the research adviser and dissertation committee provide guidance.

The physical oceanography curriculum combines a comprehensive program of course work with individually tailored specialization to meet student needs.  At the start of each quarter during the first year, the guidance committee meets with students to help them select coursework appropriate for their individual research interests.  For example, students might choose to focus on observational physical oceanography, theoretical physical oceanography, or atmosphere/ocean interactions.  

Students in all areas of physical oceanography are required to take SIO 203A-B, 214A, and 212A. Twelve additional four-unit graduate courses are required to meet the PhD requirement.  Students normally take a total of twelve four-unit classes in the first year, and at least four additional four-unit classes after the first year.

 As part of the overall requirement, coursework should include a breadth component of two or more four-unit courses in other scientific disciplines. These might come from the Scripps Oceanography core courses in other oceanographic disciplines (SIO 240, 260, 280) or from related graduate-level courses taught at UC San Diego.

Physical oceanography students are required to take the departmental examination after completing one year of graduate work at UC San Diego. The examination covers the material in the four required courses and in the eight additional first-year graduate courses chosen by the student in consultation with the guidance committee chair.

The Department of Scripps Institution of Oceanography offers regular seminars in several areas of current interest. After the departmental exam, students in residence are strongly encouraged to enroll for credit in at least one one-unit seminar each quarter.


The physical oceanography curriculum combines a comprehensive program of course work with individually tailored specialization to meet student needs.

Required course work (20 units selected from the following designated courses):

  • SIO 203A and SIO 203B. Introduction to Applied Mathematics I-II (4 units each)
  • SIO 210. Physical Oceanography (4 units)
  • SIO 212A and SIO 212B. Geophysical Fluid Dynamics I-II (4 units each)
  • SIO 214A. Introduction to Fluid Mechanics (4 units)
  • SIO 221A and SIO 221B. Analysis of Physical Oceanographic Data A-B (4 units each)

Elective course work:

Students may fulfill the remaining units of required course work through elective course offerings selected in consultation with the students’ guidance committee. These might come from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography core courses in other oceanographic disciplines (SIO 240, Marine Geology; SIO 260, Marine Chemistry; SIO 280, Biological Oceanography) or from related graduate-level courses taught at UC San Diego.

Research in Physical Oceanography

Of the sixteen categories of research at Scripps, the PO group is most closely associated with the following integrated research themes:

Physical Oceanography Faculty and Researchers: