A perspective on the future of physical oceanography

Naveira Garabato, A. C.

abstract: The ocean flows because it is forced by winds, tides and exchanges of heat and freshwater with the overlying atmosphere and cryosphere. To achieve a state where the defining properties of the ocean (such as its energy and momentum) do not continuously increase, some form of dissipation or damping is required to balance the forcing. The ocean circulation is thought to be forced primarily at the large scales characteristic of ocean basins, yet to be damped at much smaller scales down to those of centimetre-sized turbulence. For decades, physical oceanographers have sought to comprehend the fundamentals of this fractal puzzle: how the ocean circulation is driven, how it is damped and how ocean dynamics connects the very different scales of forcing and dissipation. While in the last two decades significant advances have taken place on all these three fronts, the thrust of progress has been in understanding the driving mechanisms of ocean circulation and the ocean’s ensuing dynamical response, with issues surrounding dissipation receiving comparatively little attention. This choice of research priorities stems not only from logistical and technological difficulties in observing and modelling the physical processes responsible for damping the circulation, but also from the untested assumption that the evolution of the ocean’s state over time scales of concern to humankind is largely independent of dissipative processes. In this article, I illustrate some of the key advances in our understanding of ocean circulation that have been achieved in the last 20 years and, based on a range of evidence, contend that the field will soon reach a stage in which uncertainties surrounding the arrest of ocean circulation will pose the main challenge to further progress. It is argued that the role of the circulation in the coupled climate system will stand as a further focal point of major advances in understanding within the next two decades, supported by the drive of physical oceanography towards a more operational enterprise by contextual factors. The basic elements that a strategy for the future must have to foster progress in these two areas are discussed, with an overarching emphasis on the promotion of curiosity-driven fundamental research against opposing external pressures and on the importance of upholding fundamental research as the apex of education in the field.

  author = {Naveira~Garabato, A. C.},
  title = {A perspective on the future of physical oceanography},
  journal = {Phil. Trans. Royal Soc.},
  year = {2012},
  pages = {5480--5511},
  volume = {370},
  issue = {1980},
  doi = {10.1098/rsta.2012.0400},
  url = {https://eprints.soton.ac.uk/345261/}