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Unit information: Geophysical Fluid Dynamics in 2020/21

Unit name Geophysical Fluid Dynamics
Unit code EASC30074
Credit points 10
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 2C (weeks 13 - 18)
Unit director Professor. Mader
Open unit status Not open

Mandatory units in Years 1 and 2 of BSc or MSci Geophysics or Environmental Geoscience.

The material in the unit ranges from the descriptive to the theoretical. To cope with the theory, students also need to have a good understanding of basic physics concepts and be confident with algebra and basic calculus.

Environmental Geoscience students with a limited background in physics and maths who are considering this unit as an option need to be aware that successful completion will involve additional effort. In order to help such students, 3 tutorials are provided before the start of the unit to introduce the ideas of vector calculus that will be used in the unit.



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 and magma; plate motions and the viscosity of the mantle; convective flows; flows in the Earth's atmosphere and oceans.

Intended learning outcomes

On successful completion of the unit students 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 and the importance of flow regime.
  • Be able to explain the origin of turbulence and be able to distinguish in detail between viscous, inviscid and turbulent flow behaviours.
  • Understand the principles of dimensional analysis and be able apply these to constrain the dynamics of geological flows.
  • Be able to explain the behaviours of Earth materials (e.g. air, water, magma, mud and various multiphase mixtures).
  • 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 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.
  • 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, pyroclastic flows, and turbidity currents.

Teaching details

The unit will be taught through a combination of

  • asynchronous online materials and, if subsequently possible, synchronous face-to-face lectures
  • synchronous office hours
  • asynchronous directed individual formative activities and exercises
  • guided, structured reading
  • practical work in the laboratory

Students who either begin or pursue their studies in an online mode may be required to complete laboratory work, or alternative activities, in person, either during the academic year 2020/21 or subsequently, in order to meet the intended learning outcomes for the unit, prepare them for subsequent units or to satisfy accreditation requirements.

Assessment Details

Assessment for learning/formative assessment laboratory notebooks for two laboratory practicals.

Assessment of learning/summative assessment End-of-unit timed open-book examination (100%) on lectured material and guided reading.

Reading and References

Essential reading for all main topics is provided on Blackboard.

Further reading:

  • 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.