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Unit information: Geophysical Fluid Dynamics in 2016/17

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Unit name Geophysical Fluid Dynamics
Unit code EASCM0025
Credit points 10
Level of study M/7
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1B (weeks 7 - 12)
Unit director Professor. Mader
Open unit status Not open

Successful completion of the first three years of a science programme. Please note that the material on this course ranges from descriptive to theoretical. To cope with the theory you need to be at ease with algebraic manipulations of equations and with basic calculus (i.e. Can you differentiate a polynomial and do you understand the meaning of the function you thereby obtain?). Anything that goes beyond this level will be introduced carefully during the course before being applied to fluid flow.



School/department School of Earth Sciences
Faculty Faculty of Science


This unit is aimed at developing a quantitative description and understanding of natural flows. This will involve a consideration of the flow of natural, multiphase materials in viscous, inviscid and turbulent flow. The fluid mechanical principles of heat and mass transfer in fluid flows will be applied to understanding geophysical phenomena. The impact of the Earth's rotation on large-scale fluid motions will also be discussed. Specific geophysical flows of interest will be: the flow of ice, rock, lava and mud; plate motions and the viscosity of the mantle; convective flows; flows in the Earth's atmosphere and oceans.

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion you will be able to:

  • Explain and apply some of the basic laws governing geophysical fluid flows.
  • Understand the principles that govern different types of flow (e.g. turbulent versus laminar motion) and different behaviours of Earth materials (e.g. air, water, magma, mud and various multiphase mixtures).
  • Understand the importance of rotation within fluid flows and be able to explain the origin of turbulence and be able to distinguish in detail between viscous, inviscid and turbulent flow behaviours.
  • Understand the effect of the Earth's rotation on large scale fluid motions in the atmosphere and oceans and be able to explain the nature and origin of the Coriolis force.
  • Understand the principles that govern natural convection including thermal, compositional and phase change effects, and apply this understanding to magma chambers and convection in the Sun's interior.
  • Understand the principles of dimensional analysis and be able apply these to constrain the dynamics of geological flows.
  • Explain and apply standard measurement techniques for determining the viscosity of various fluids including multiphase mixtures and be able to interpret flow-curves.
  • Understand the principles of buoyancy-driven flows and be able to apply these to the dynamics of volcanic eruption columns and pyroclastic flows, and turbidity currents.
  • Critically discuss the literature in geophysical fluid mechanics.
  • Be able to keep an accurate laboratory notebook.

Teaching details

Lectures and Practicals

Assessment Details

Continuous assessment will cover 40% of total marks and will be based on the assessment of your laboratory notebook, and the seminar. Solutions to examples are not assessed. However, worked solutions will be provided at the end of the course. A final closed exam in the January exam period will cover all aspects of the course (60% of marks).

Assessment will be completed in accordance with the University Regulations and Code of Practice for Taught Programmes, available online at

Reading and References

Students will be provided with required reading covering all the main topics covered at the start of the unit (~20-30 pages per week).

Other recommended texts include:

  • Ocean Circulation, Oceanography Course Team, The Open University, Pergamon, 1989, ISBN:0-08-036369-5.
  • Mechanics in the Earth and Environmental Sciences, GV Middleton and PR Wilcock, Cambridge University Press, 1994, ISBN:0-521-44669-4.
  • The Physics of Glaciers, 3rd Edition, WSB Paterson, Elsevier Science Ltd, 1994, ISBN:0-08-037944-3.
  • Atmosphere, Weather and Climate, 8th Edition, RG Barry and RJ Chorley, Routledge, 2003, ISBN:0-415-27171-1.
  • Meteorology Today, 6th Edition, CD Ahrens, Brooks/Cole, 2000, ISBN:0-534-37201-5.