Introduction to Physical Oceanography

METEO 451: Introduction to Physical Oceanography

Spring 2021 Semester
Last modified: January 16th, 2021 

Sukyoung Lee, Professor, Department of Meteorology
Office: 519 Walker Building
Phone: 814-880-4063
Mailbox: 532 Walker Building
Electronic mailbox: 

TIME: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 9:05-10:20 AM
PLACE: Zoom 

Course designation in curriculum: elective 

COURSE OBJECTIVE: The primary objective of this course is to describe the circulation of the ocean and present a theoretical basis for understanding it. The focus is on the large-scale, basin-wide features of the ocean circulation, such as: 1) the subtropical ocean gyres that contain the wind-driven western boundary currents like the Gulf Stream, 2) the equatorial oceans that respond rapidly to external forcing to produce phenomena like El Nino, and 3) the thermohaline circulation that acts as a slow regulator of the earth's climate. A main goal is to demonstrate to meteorology students that the ocean is not a static, passive lower boundary to the atmosphere but a dynamic, evolving entity that is intimately coupled to the atmosphere through the exchange of heat, momentum, and water. Thus the oceans affect weather and climate. We will be using calculus and basic laws of physics (conservation of mass, momentum and energy) in order to acquire a quantitative understanding of ocean cir­culation.  To reinforce concepts, laboratory assignments will involve manipulation and modeling of oceanographic data. 


Students who do not meet these prerequisites may be disenrolled according to Administrative Policy C-5 if they do not have the proper prerequisite override. Students who add the course after being disenrolled according to this policy are in violation of Item 15 on the Student Code of Conduct: 

CLASS STRUCTURE: During a typical week I will lecture on Tuesdays and the first 25 minutes on Thursdays. For the rest of the Thursday period, you will work on a laboratory exercises. 

REQUIRED READING MATERIAL: Najjar, R. G., Meteo 451 Notes: Introduction to Physical Oceanography. The lecture notes are posted on CANVAS, under the title “Lecture Notes.pdf”. Penn State’s Course Management System.  The same notes can also be accessed through

There are also supplementary materials, under “Supplementary Lecture Materials”, and they are posted on CANVAS. 


Stewart, R. H., 2008: Introduction to Physical Oceanography. (freely available on web. A pdf version is also available on CANVAS) 

Talley L.D., Pickard G.L., Emery W.J., Swift J.H., 2011. Descriptive Physical Oceanography: An Introduction (Sixth Edition), Elsevier, Boston, 560 pp. (reserved in the EMS library) 



  1. Introduction 10. The thermohaline circulation
  2. The equation of state for seawater 11. Tropical oceanography
  3. Static stability in the ocean 12. El Niño
  4. The conservation equations 13. The Southern Ocean
  5. Geostrophic and inertial flow
  6. Ekman flow
  7. Sverdrup flow and westward intensification
  8. Air-sea heat and fresh water fluxes
  9. The surface ocean mixed layer 

LAB EXERCISES: There are six lab exercises, and these will be assigned every 2-3 weeks or so. For each lab, the lab instructions, Matlab codes, and some data files are posted on CANVAS.  They are under the folder “Labs”. They will typically require several additional hours of work outside of the lab period.  The assignments will engage you directly in oceanographic data analysis and modeling, using the programming language Matlab, which is quite useful in science and engineering and thus many of your prospective employers (including graduate school research advisers) will be pleased that you know it. I anticipate that most of your learning will occur as you do these assignments. 

Lab report deadlines: 

  • January 26  Lab #1 (Learning MATLAB)
  • February 11 Lab #2 (Potential Temperature, Density, and Stability)
  • Note: this due date is Thursday instead of Tuesday (Feb. 9th is one of the Wellness Day)
  • February 23 Lab #3 (Drake Passage Flow)
  • March 16 Lab #4 (Sverdrup Transport and Western Intensification)
  • March 30 Lab #5 (Mixed Layer)
  • April  20 Lab #6 (Advection and Diffusion)

TESTS: There will be two in-class open book exams.  The tentative dates for the exams are March 4th and April 29th. There will be no final exam.


A: 92-100%; A-: 88-91%; B+: 84-87%; B: 80-83%; B-: 75-79%; C+: 71-74%; C: 63-70%; D: 50-62%; F: < 50%

Graduate Students: 
A: 94-100%; A-: 90-93%; B+: 87-89%; B: 84-86%; B-: 80-83%; C+: 77-79%; C: 70-76%; D: 60-69%; F: < 60% 

Weighting: 70% homework (i.e., the lab reports), 30% mid terms.

Curving Policy

For the exams, a curve will be applied if the class average is below 80; the curved average will be set to 80. 

Late Penalty 

For homework assignments, a 10% late penalty will be applied for each day. 

Cell Phone Penalty 

Use of cell phones during class is not allowed. Please turn off your cell phone in the classroom.    

CLASS PARTICIPATION: The learning environment is enhanced when students are actively engaged.  I therefore encourage you to ask questions and present your point of view in class. In addition, the class participation will help me to write an informative reference letter if you ever want me to write one on your behalf. Office-hour contacts can also accomplish this goal. 

Objectives for Meteo 451: 

  1. Students can demonstrate a theoretical knowledge of the causes of large-scale basin-wide circulations in the ocean (relate to program objectives 1, 2, and 3)
  2. Students can demonstrate skills in applying calculus and the basic laws of physics to the quantitative description of oceanic circulations (relate to program objectives 1, 2, and 3)  

Outcomes for Meteo 451: 

  1. Students can demonstrate knowledge of the dynamics of a variety of oceanic circulations including the Gulf Stream, ocean gyres, and the thermohaline circulation (relate to program outcomes b and d)
  2. Students can demonstrate knowledge of the Ekman theory of a wind-driven ocean that explains upwelling (relate to program outcome b)
  3. Students can demonstrate knowledge of equatorial ocean dynamics including the El Nino/Southern Oscillation (relate to program outcome b)
  4. Students can manipulate and model oceanographic data in a laboratory setting to help develop improved knowledge of oceanic circulations (relate to program outcomes a, d, and e) 

Academic Integrity 

Two sample statements are given below; please edit to fit your class.  More examples can be found here: 

Academic Integrity statement option 1

Students in this class are expected to write up their problem sets individually, to work the exams on their own, and to write their papers in their own words using proper citations.  Class members may work on the problem sets in groups, but then each student must write up the answers separately.  Students are not to copy lab or exam answers from another person's paper and present them as their own; students may not plagiarize text from papers or websites written by others.  Students who present other people's work as their own will receive at least a 0 on the assignment and may well receive an F or XF in the course.  Please see: Earth and Mineral Sciences Academic Integrity Procedures:, which this course adopts. To learn more, see Penn State's "Plagiarism Tutorial for Students."

Course Copyright

All course materials students receive or to which students have online access are protected by copyright laws. Students may use course materials and make copies for their own use as needed, but unauthorized distribution and/or uploading of materials without the instructor’s express permission is strictly prohibited. University Policy AD 40, the University Policy Recording of Classroom Activities and Note Taking Services addresses this issue. Students who engage in the unauthorized distribution of copyrighted materials may be held in violation of the University’s Code of Conduct, and/or liable under Federal and State laws. 

For example, uploading completed labs, homework, or other assignments to any study site constitutes a violation of this policy. 

Accommodations for Students with Disabilities

Penn State welcomes students with disabilities into the University's educational programs. Every Penn State campus has an office for students with disabilities. The Student Disability Resources (SDR) website provides contact information for every Penn State campus: ( For further information, please visit the Student Disability Resources website ( 

In order to receive consideration for reasonable accommodations, you must contact the appropriate disability services office at the campus where you are officially enrolled, participate in an intake interview, and provide documentation: If the documentation supports your request for reasonable accommodations, your campus’s disability services office will provide you with an accommodation letter. Please share this letter with your instructors and discuss the accommodations with them as early in your courses as possible. You must follow this process for every semester that you request accommodations. 


Regular attendance is critical for building on the skills and knowledge developed throughout the class. Students who participate have a more complete understanding of the material presented and are more likely to succeed in the class. This is true whether your attendance is in person or remote.  The University recognizes that, on exceptional occasions, students may miss a class meeting to participate in a regularly scheduled university-approved curricular or extracurricular activity (such as field trips, debate trips, choir trips, and athletic contests), or due to unavoidable or other legitimate circumstances such as illness, injury, military service, family emergency, religious observance, participation in local, state, and federal government elections, or post-graduate, career-related interviews when there is no opportunity for students to re-schedule these opportunities (such as elections or employment and graduate school final interviews).  In all cases, you should inform me in advance, when possible.  Missing class, even for a legitimate purpose, may mean there is work that cannot be made up, hurting your grade in this class.  Students who encounter serious family, health, or personal situations that result in extended absences should contact the Office of the Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs (AVPSA) and Student Care and Advocacy for help:  You should be prepared to provide documentation for participation in University-approved activities, as well as for career-related interviews.  You should submit to the instructor a Class Absence Form:, at least one week prior to the activity. 

Reporting Educational Equity Concerns

Penn State takes great pride to foster a diverse and inclusive environment for students, faculty, and staff.  Acts of intolerance, discrimination, or harassment due to age, ancestry, color, disability, gender, gender identity, national origin, race, religious belief, sexual orientation, or veteran status are not tolerated ( and can be reported through Educational Equity via the Report Bias webpage

Counseling and Psychological Services

Many students at Penn State face personal challenges or have psychological needs that may interfere with their academic progress, social development, or emotional wellbeing.  The university offers a variety of confidential services to help you through difficult times, including individual and group counseling, crisis intervention, consultations, online chats, and mental health screenings.  These services are provided by staff who welcome all students and embrace a philosophy respectful of clients’ cultural and religious backgrounds, and sensitive to differences in race, ability, gender identity and sexual orientation.  Services include the following: 

Counseling and Psychological Services at University Park  (CAPS): 814-863-0395
Counseling and Psychological Services at Commonwealth Campuses
Penn State Crisis Line (24 hours/7 days/week): 877-229-6400
Crisis Text Line (24 hours/7 days/week): Text LIONS to 741741

Additional Policies

Wellness Days

For Tuesday/Thursday classes:

Tuesday, 2/9 and Thursday, 3/11 have been designated as Wellness Days. No class meeting will happen, either in person or remotely, for those two days, and no assignments will be due on those days. Students are encouraged to use these days to focus on their physical and mental health. Please see  for university sponsored events focusing on wellness that may be of interest to you. See Canvas and the course syllabus for any work that may be due before the next class meeting. 

For M/W/F classes:

Wednesday, April 7th has been designated as a Wellness Day. No class meeting will happen, either in person or remotely, for that day, and no assignments will be due on that day. Students are encouraged to use the day to focus on their physical and mental health. Please see for university-sponsored events focusing on wellness that may be of interest to you. See Canvas and the course syllabus for any work that may be due before the next class meeting. 

For laboratory classes or programs that have received an exemption from offering one or more wellness days:

[Date of wellness day] has been designated as a Wellness Day by Penn State; however, the nature of the coursework for this class means that the class will meet on this day and has received an exemption from the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences [or, describe the nature of the modification].   

[**NOTE: Instructors in this exemption scenario are encouraged to make as much allowance as possible for Wellness Days by possibly using recorded lectures, group discussion boards, or other independent work that can be done asynchronously.**]

Webcam Requirements

This course may require you to have a webcam for class assessments. Classes and assessments may be conducted using Zoom or other technology selected by your instructor which may use your computer’s webcam or other technologies to communicate, monitor, and/or record classes, class activities, and assessments. Assessments may also be conducted using proctoring software, which may listen to you, monitor your computer screen, view you and your surroundings, and record (including visual and audio recordings) all activity during the proctoring process. Please contact your instructor if you are unable to comply or have any questions or concerns. 

Syllabus and Paper Acknowledgement Forms
It is the recommendation of the college that all students sign and return the Syllabus Acknowledgement Form ( acknowledgement form.doc) during the first week of the semester. In addition, The College also recommends the Paper Submission Form ( submission form.docx) as a way to have students take responsibility for papers/labs/homework done as part of group work.

Penn State E-mail Accounts

All official communications from Penn State are sent to students' Penn State e-mail accounts. Be sure to check your Penn State account regularly, or forward your Penn State e-mail (see to your preferred e-mail account, so you don't miss any important information.

Deferred Grades

If you are prevented from completing this course within the prescribed amount of time for reasons that are beyond your control, it is possible to have the grade deferred with the concurrence of the instructor, following Penn State Deferred Grade Policy 48-40 ( To seek a deferred grade, you must submit a written request (by e-mail or U.S. post) to the instructor describing the reason(s) for the request. Non-emergency permission for filing a deferred grade must be requested before the beginning of the final examination period. It is up to the instructor to determine whether or not you will be permitted to receive a deferred grade. If permission is granted, you will work with the instructor to establish a communication plan and a clear schedule for completion.  If, for any reason, the course work for the deferred grade is not complete by the assigned time, a grade of "F" will be automatically entered on your transcript. 

Military Personnel

Veterans and currently serving military personnel and/or spouses with unique circumstances (e.g., upcoming deployments, drill/duty requirements, disabilities, VA appointments, etc.) are welcome and encouraged to communicate these, in advance if possible, to the instructor in the case that special arrangements need to be made. 

Technical Requirements

For this course, we recommend the minimum technical requirements outlined on the Dutton Institute Technical Requirements page (, including the requirements listed for same-time, synchronous communications. If you need technical assistance at any point during the course, please contact the ITS Help Desk (


The term "Netiquette" refers to the etiquette guidelines for electronic communications, such as e-mail and bulletin board postings. Netiquette covers not only rules to maintain civility in discussions, but also special guidelines unique to the electronic nature of forum messages. Please review some general Netiquette guidelines that should be followed when communicating in this course. 

Disruptive Behavior

Behavior that disrupts normal classroom activities will not be tolerated, in accordance with Items 9 and 14 in the Student Code of Conduct

Mandated Reporting Statement

Penn State’s policies require me, as a faculty member, to share information about incidents of sex-based discrimination and harassment (discrimination, harassment, sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, dating violence, domestic violence, stalking, and retaliation) with Penn State’s Title IX coordinator or deputy coordinators, regardless of whether the incidents are stated to me in person or shared by students as part of their coursework.  For more information regarding the University's policies and procedures for responding to reports of sexual or gender-based harassment or misconduct, please visit Penn State's Office of Sexual Misconduct Prevention & Response website. 

Additionally, I am required to make a report on any reasonable suspicion of child abuse in accordance with the Pennsylvania Child Protective Services Law

Diversity, Inclusion, and Respect

Penn State is “committed to creating an educational environment which is free from intolerance directed toward individuals or groups and strives to create and maintain an environment that fosters respect for others” as stated in Policy AD29 Statement on Intolerance. All members of this class are expected to contribute to a respectful, welcoming and inclusive environment and to interact with civility.

For additional information, see:

Accessible Syllabus

Notes: Any syllabus posted online (e.g. a Word/PDF file or an online syllabus) should make destinations clickable links such as is done throughout this page. Also, in order to comply with Penn State Policy AD69 (Accessibility of Penn State Web Pages,, PDF documents cannot be the sole source of presenting online information. Such documents include syllabi, homework assignments, and scanned notes.  

Disclaimer Statement

Please note that the specifics of this Course Syllabus can be changed at any time, and you will be responsible for abiding by any such changes. Changes to the syllabus shall also be given to the student in written (paper or electronic) form through CANVAS.