The UNSW Physical Oceanography (MSCI3001) course examines the fundamentals of oceanography. It explains how the ocean works and interacts with other parts of climate systems. The course focuses on understanding the role marine ecosystems play in the larger climate and how they adapt to climate change.

The ocean covers 71% of the Earth’s surface and is home to flora and fauna that are crucial to sustaining life. It acts as the energy source to drive the large-scale circulation of the atmosphere and to generate devastating tropical cyclones. It’s a crucial component in El Nino and La Nina cycles that affect weather patterns around the world. The ocean absorbs large amounts of anthropogenic heat and carbon dioxide, making it fundamental for our understanding of climate change.

In the Physical Oceanography course, the ocean is studied from many angles, and during the course, you’ll ponder important questions like: Why don’t currents move in the same direction as the wind? How can we forecast the next El Niño event? Why does most marine life occur at the ocean margins, but plastics congregate in the centre ocean basins and, Does water spiral down the toilet in different directions in the southern and northern hemisphere?

The physical ocean environment is critical to understanding marine biology. To explain the mysteries of the ocean, Oceanographers must grasp the concepts of biology, chemistry, geology and physics. When exploring ocean motion and the movement of heat, nutrients and other properties, it’s vital to understand how each element directly impacts climate, weather, coastal infrastructure and marine species. Throughout the Physical Oceanography course, you’ll have the chance to work with real ocean and climate data to help you understand the dynamics and properties of ocean water and how they’re measured.

Using state-of-the-art analysis tools, you’ll apply real-world data to problems like El Niño, marine productivity, the great garbage patches and global warming. Upon completion of the course, you’ll understand the critical and often counterintuitive processes that occur in the ocean. You’ll also comprehend how the physical ocean system interacts and controls marine biology and the climate system.


Course Breakdown

The Physical Oceanography course involves face-to-face lectures that cover ocean basics, observation and modelling, ocean physics, waves, tides and climate change. Our tutorials involve solving basic math problems; however, we also provide additional tutorials for those who need to brush up on their skills.

During the course, you’ll use MATLABs data analysis software to explore real oceanographic data. This will be accompanied by a student workshop where you’ll have the opportunity to present your own research topic.

The course covers the following areas:

  • Properties of the ocean
  • How we observe and model the ocean
  • Forces that drive ocean circulation
  • Wind-driven circulation, upwelling, subtropical gyres and western boundary currents
  • Ocean waves and tides
  • The thermohaline circulation
  • Oceans and climate variability: El Niño and La Niña
  • Oceans and global warming
  • Spherical Cows: how to solve complex problems using order of magnitude estimation


Conditions for Enrolment

The course is intended for third-year undergraduate students Physical Oceanography (MSCI3001) or postgraduate students Oceanographic Processes (MSCI5004).

Assumed knowledge includes any six units of credit (UoC) of level one mathematics:


Career Opportunities

This subject will introduce you to cross-disciplinary research, providing you with an understanding of the links between the physical environment, marine ecosystems, climate variability and climate change. You will develop skills in handling real data using software and simple calculations to solve complex problems. The skills you develop are relevant to many future career opportunities in Environmental Sciences from environmental research, to data analysis, policymaking to science communication.

Relevant Roles

  • Meteorologist
  • Geologist
  • Geophysicist
  • Hydrologist
  • Ecologist
  • Environmental Scientist
  • Natural Resource Manager
  • Marine Scientist
  • Marine Biologist
  • Environmental Scientist
  • Data Analyst

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What Our Graduates Say

“At the end of the Term, I found myself with basic programming skills, presentation skills and developed understanding of how the ocean works. I also found myself a supervisor for my honours project on oceanographic temperature extremes. I would have never thought that this course would have the potential for anything more than just learning the course content. Well, with an open mind and a positive attitude who knows what you can get out of a course.”

- Nish Su. Nish, Physical Oceanography graduate.