El Niño is a global phenomenon. Sea surface temperature anomaly during the 1997–98 El Niño. Source: NASA.

Why does the ocean matter? Read more »

Synopsis: A quantitative introduction to the field of physical oceanography, with special emphasis on the ocean’s interaction with the atmosphere and role in the global climate system. Topics include the ocean’s heat and salt budgets, the equations of motion, wind–driven and thermohaline circulations, equatorial oceanography, ocean–atmosphere coupling, natural climate variability such as El Niño, and the ocean’s role in—and response to—anthropogenic climate change. Theory is complemented by exposure to state–of–the–art instrumental data, satellite observations, and numerical models.


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Course goals:

  1. Awareness. Students will gain a broad awareness and appreciation of the important role of the ocean in the global climate system.
  2. Knowledge. Students will be able to identify and describe the key physics including conservation laws governing the properties (e.g., temperature) and circulation (e.g., gyres) of the ocean.
  3. Intuition. Students will be able to apply general principles that govern how the ocean and atmosphere interact toward predicting behaviors in the coupled ocean–atmosphere system.
  4. Tools. Students will become familiar with the methods (e.g., data and models) by which we observe and understand the state of the Earth system and how it changes over time.
  5. Skills. Students will be able to correctly interpret common visualizations of data in the geosciences, such as spatial maps or time graphs.
  6. Curiosity, critical thinking and problem solving. Based on insightful interpretations of data [#5], students will be able to ask deep questions [#1], form hypotheses [#2–3], and propose ways to test such hypotheses [#4].
  7. Integration and discovery. Students will have the opportunity to bring knowledge, ideas, and problems from their own discipline to bear on material covered in this course, and vice versa.
  8. Fun. The best advice a mentor gave me was “Have fun,” so we will have some fun.

Prerequisites: Undergraduates (4730): ATOC 1060, 3070, or 3600, and one semester of calculus. Graduate students (5730): This course is intended for graduate students from departments other than ATOC who wish to complement their course of study or research with useful exposure to physical oceanography and climate science, including those students pursuing the Graduate Certificate in Oceanography offered by ATOC. Graduate students in ATOC should refer to the core course ATOC 5051.

Texts: Required readings throughout the semester will draw on the following texts or as provided separately. In terms of scope, lecture notes take precedence over these texts. For example, both required texts contain far more material than will be included in the course. Attending lectures is key to knowing the difference.

Introduction to Physical Oceanography, Robert H. Stewart, 2008.
This course will cover material from chapters 1–14, except chapter 8.
The complete PDF of this textbook is distributed freely by the author at

Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis, IPCC, Cambridge University Press.
This is the contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The entire IPCC AR5 is distributed freely at

(Optional) Climate and the Oceans, Geoffrey K. Vallis, 2011, Princeton University Press.
This short book is a truly excellent primer on the physics of ocean circulation and the ocean’s role in climate. Available for ~$30 from the publisher (

(Optional) Oceanography, Open University, Second Edition, 1995–2001.
This is a series on oceanography by the Open University course team. Four volumes are relevant to this course, all of which are freely available at the links below. In general, this text is less quantitatively rigorous than Stewart, but provides some basics that may be valuable supplement for some student (especially volume 3). (1) The Ocean Basins: Their Structure and Evolution, (2) Seawater (3) Ocean Circulation (4) Waves, Tides and Shallow–Water Processes

(Optional) Climate Dynamics, Kerry H. Cook, 2013, Princeton University Press.
This book is recommended for students interested in a broader treatment of climate dynamics to complement some topics covered in this course. The hardcover book is available for ~$65 from the publisher or I also have one extra copy available for short–term checkout by students.

Note: This course was previously listed as 4500/7500 (Fall 2015 and Spring 2017). This course's entry in the CU Boulder Course Catalog contains a slightly shorter synopsis.