Michael Whitney

(Ph.D., University of Delaware) Associate Professor of Marine Sciences

My research focuses on the physical dynamics of estuarine and coastal systems. I study how currents and density fields respond to winds, surface heat flux, tides, and buoyant river inputs. Much of my research involves adapting hydrodynamic models to construct simulations and idealized process models. The realistic simulations are powerful tools for describing flow fields, diagnosing physical dynamics, and predicting circulation in coastal and estuarine waters. The idealized process models are well-suited to isolating forcing-response relationships and generalizing findings.

Coastal buoyant outflows
Rivers discharge fresh water into coastal waters. These buoyant outflows mix with ocean waters in estuaries and on the continental shelf. I am concerned with the transport and mixing of these coastal buoyant outflows. I am involved in ongoing research that investigates the behavior of the freshwater outflow from the Delaware Bay. Observations and simulation results indicate that the plume flows southward along the coast as a slender buoyancy current during light wind conditions. Strong southward (downwelling-favorable) winds accelerate the southward transport and push the buoyant waters against the coast. Strong northward (upwelling-favorable) winds can reverse the flow and transport buoyant waters northward, spread the plume offshore, and increase mixing with ocean waters. Tidal currents advect and mix buoyant waters within the estuary and on the continental shelf immediately outside the mouth.

Another research project investigates the transport of river waters discharged along the Oregon coast. Observations and simulation results indicate that the distribution of river waters and the nutrients they carry is controlled by the larger-scale wind-driven circulation along the continental shelf. During the predominant wintertime northward (downwelling-favorable) winds, nutrient-rich river waters are confined close to the coast by the coastal downwelling circulation. Intervals of southward (upwelling-favorable) winds are effective at transporting river waters across-shelf and can be important in seeding the continental shelf with nutrients.

The Connecticut River plume and the buoyant outflow from the Long Island Sound are two local examples of coastal buoyant outflows. I am interested in how these outflows are influenced by tides and winds. An important goal is to improve our understanding of the processes that control freshwater transport in this region.

Continental shelf circulation
I am involved in research that studies the mixing and transport of fresh water along the Middle Atlantic Bight. The goal is to identify the pathways that transport fresh water from the continental shelf to the deep ocean. This research will increase our understanding of shelf processes and improve the performance of global climate models.

I am studying the dynamics of wintertime circulation along the Oregon continental shelf. The circulation and density fields that develop during northward (downwelling-favorable) winds are of particular interest. I am interested in the development of instabilities in the downwelling jet. Another focus is on the behavior of this stratified flow in the vicinity of banks.

Long Island Sound
I have begun work on simulating circulation in the Long Island Sound. The Sound is an area of great commercial, recreational, and ecological interest. One objective is investigating the role physical dynamics play in the hypoxic conditions observed during the summer in the western Sound. Other research focuses include studying buoyancy-driven flow, tidal flow, wind-driven circulation, and air-sea interaction.

Research Projects

Collaborative Research: Investigating Tidal Influences on Subtidal Estuary-Coast Exchange Using Observations and Numerical Simulations – National Science Foundation

CAREER: The Influence of Distributed River Inputs and Coastal Embayments on Dynamics in Large Estuaries – National Science Foundation

Collaborative Project: Improving the representation of coastal and estuarine processes in earth system models – Department of Energy

Measuring and Predicting the Fate and Transport of Perfluorinated Contaminants Entering the Long Island Sound from Municipal Wastewater in the Housatonic Watershed – Connecticut Sea Grant Program

Oceanography Students

Christina Menniti – M.Sc. Student

Oceanography Alumni

Steven Deignan-Schmidt – Ph.D. 2018

Melissa Hacker-Gibson – M.Sc. 2012

Yan Jia – Ph.D. 2019

Ralph (RJ) Jiorle – M.Sc. 2009

Qiang Sun – Ph.D. 2018

Courses Taught

MARN 1002/1003/1004 Introduction to Oceanography with Laboratory

MARN 4060/5065 Physical Oceanography

MARN 4066/5066 River Influences on the Marine Environment

Honors Received

National Science Foundation CAREER Award


Whitney, M. M. and D. L. Codiga, 2011: Response of a large stratified estuary to wind events: Observations, simulations, and theory for Long Island Sound, J. Phys. Oceanogr., 41, 1308-1327.

Whitney, M. M. 2010. A study on the variability off river discharge and salinity in the Middle Atlantic Bight and Long Island Sound. Cont. Shelf. Res., 30, 305-318.

Whitney, M. M. and J. S. Allen. 2009. Coastal wind-driven circulation in the vicinity of a bank: Part 1. Modeling flow over idealized banks. J. Phys. Oceanogr., 39, 1273-1297.

Whitney, M. M. and J. S. Allen. 2009. Coastal wind-driven circulation in the vicinity of a bank: Part 2. Modeling flow over the Heceta Bank complex. J. Phys. Oceanogr., 39, 1298-1316.

Rice, A. E., M. M. Whitney, R. W. Garvine, and P. Huq. 2008. Energetics in Delaware Bay: Comparison of two box models with observations. J. Mar. Res., 66, 873-898.

Whitney, M. M. and R. W. Garvine. 2007. Estimating tidal current amplitudes outside estuaries and characterizing the zone of estuarine tidal influence. J. Continent. Res., 28, 280-290.

Garvine, R. W. and M. M. Whitney. 2006. An estuarine box model of freshwater delivery to the coastal ocean for use in climate models. J. Mar. Res., 64, 173-194.

Wetz, M. S., B. Hales, P. A. Wheeler, Z. Chase, and M. M. Whitney. 2006. Riverine input of macronutrients, iron, and organic matter to the coastal ocean off Oregon, USA, during the winter. Limnol. Oceanogr., 51, 2221-2231.

Whitney, M. M. and R. W. Garvine. 2006. Simulating a coastal buoyant outflow: Comparisons to observations. J. Phys. Oceanogr., 36, 3-21.

Whitney, M. M. and R. W. Garvine. 2005. Wind influence on the Delaware buoyant outflow. J. Geophys. Res.,110, doi:10.1029/2003JC002261.

Tilburg, C. E., J. T. Reager, and M. M. Whitney. 2005. The physics of blue crab larval recruitment in Delaware Bay: A model study. J. Mar. Res., 63, 471-495.

Whitney, M. M. 2003. Simulating the Delaware Coastal Current. University of Delaware dissertation.


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