The University of Southampton

SOES3009 Shelf Seas and Shelf Edge Dynamics

Module Overview

Aims and Objectives

Module Aims

1. To give a general introduction to the processes important for influencing the circulation and vertical structure in shelf seas. 2. To explore in detail the fundamental balances and processes governing the physical dynamics of the shelf edge and shelf sea, including tides. 3. To provide an understanding of how the physics impacts and affects many biogeochemical processes in shelf seas, of relevance to global budgets. 4. To undertake an investigation of the links between phytoplankton production and water column processes using a 1-D (vertical profile) coupled numerical model.

Learning Outcomes

Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • statistics and computer skills,
  • library information retrieval,
  • report writing.
Subject Specific Intellectual and Research Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Practical experience of running a coupled physics/biology 1-D numerical model, interpreting the results when a key parameter is varied, and using the model to simulate observed physical/biological structures in UK shelf seas;
  • practical experience of identifying tidal constituents in a time series of sea level, and predicting tides at ports worldwide;
  • experience of identifying key physical processes through evaluation of real oceanographic data;
  • a basic appreciation of the use of non-dimensional numbers;
  • a background overview of the shelf-seas literature and contemporary research challenges.
Learning Outcomes

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Recognize and describe various aspects of turbulence (Reynolds stresses, eddy viscosity, length scales) in relation to mixing in shelf seas
  • Quantitatively analyse several weeks of sea level data, to identify tidal constituents and non-tidal variations in sea level, and predict the tide at selected coastal locations worldwide, to investigate and explain local phenomena controlling tidal amplitude.
  • Provide a general explanation of the competing effects of heat and fresh water input and vertical mixing by tides and winds in determining the level of stratification in shelf seas.
  • Describe and explain the physical controls on the biogeochemistry of shelf seas.
  • Use a 1-D coupled model to investigate physical and biological processes in shelf-seas, in relation to seasonal stratification and tidal mixing fronts.
  • Understand the physical constraints on transport between the shelf and the deep ocean, the physical mechanisms that drive such transport, and the biogeochemical consequences.


The shelf seas and shelf edge are dynamically very different from the open ocean in terms of typical levels of turbulence and of the control exerted by coastal and seabed boundaries. This module provides you with core knowledge of the processes that govern the relatively shallow shelf seas, from coastal waters to the shelf break. By the end of the course, you will understand a range of physical and biological processes that explain observed structures, distributions and phenomena, both physical and biological, on time scales ranging from seconds to years. First of all, physical forcing and dynamical responses in shelf seas are outlined, with further emphasis on turbulence and mixing in homogeneous and stratified fluids, recapping some material covered in Physical Oceanography II. Tides are then outlined, from first principles (the equilibrium tide, tidal constituents) to applied situations (propagation of the tide around semi-enclosed seas, resonance and local variations in tidal amplitude). The following section of the course develops a quantification of stratification, the potential energy anomaly (PEA), particularly useful for understanding the seasonal cycle of stratification in shelf seas. In a 1D (vertical) context, the tendency (time variation) of PEA is related to the competing influences of turbulence (due to tides and wind) and stratification (due to heating and freshwater input) in determining the physical environment. Considering a near-balance of mixing and stratifying influences, tidal mixing fronts (TMFs) are predicted, with dynamical consequences (along-front jets). The biological consequences of both seasonal stratification and TMFs are further considered in detail, along with regions of freshwater influence (ROFIs). Finally, dynamical processes at the shelf edge are considered, with emphasis on how the shallow shelf region is connected to the open ocean, in spite of strong bathymetric control on shelf edge dynamics. Emphasis is on the physics of upwelling and downwelling events, and how these events can control nutrient and carbon fluxes across the shelf edge, finishing with consideration of the internal tide dissipation and locally enhanced primary productivity. You will also gain practical experience in the analysis and prediction of tides around the world, and in modelling the seasonal cycles of stratification and productivity in shelf seas around the UK, through two computing practicals and the course project that uses a 1D model of fundamental physical and biological processes.

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Formal Lectures (45-minute lectures): These provide the theory underlying the physics and dynamics of the shelf seas and shelf edge, and associated controls on many biogeochemical processes. Copies of the PowerPoint slides are available on the SOES3009 blackboard website prior to each lecture. Relevant references appear on the slides where appropriate. At the end of the module, there will be a revision lecture. Practicals: There will be two practical classes. The first class (one session) will provide you with the practical ability (using Matlab scripts) to analyse a time-series record (from Empress Dock) for tidal signals, and then to predict the tide at a range of coastal locations worldwide. The second class (two sessions) will introduce you to the 1-D coupled biological-physical water column model, guiding you in the application of this model to predict and investigate seasonal stratification and tidal mixing fronts around the UK. Problems classes: There will be three problem-solving classes, on basics (forcing, dynamics, turbulence), shelf sea stratification and mixing, and shelf edge processes. Additional lectures: Staff will inform you of any relevant research seminars or guest lectures taking place. A wide range of support can be provided for those students who have further or specific learning and teaching needs.

Practical classes and workshops12
Independent Study104
Total study time150

Resources & Reading list

Simpson, J. and J. Sharples (2012). Introduction to the Physical and Biological Oceanography of Shelf Seas. 


Assessment Strategy

Theory Examination (60%): A 2.5-hour written examination. You will need to answer all short answer questions from Section A and two out of four longer questions from Section B. Model answers from the previous years exam paper will be given out. Links to past papers are given on the SOES3009 blackboard website. Tests Learning Outcomes 1,3,4,6. Course Project (40%): After the associated sessions, you use the 1D model to investigate a selected tidal mixing front in shelf seas around the UK, and write a fully referenced, 8-page, report on your findings. Tests Learning Outcomes 3,4,5. Tidal Analysis (formative assessment): Harmonic analysis of the tide at Southampton is undertaken, followed by prediction of the tide at selected ports worldwide. Tests Learning Outcome 2. Problem sheets (formative assessment): Three problem sheets help you get to grips with specific lecture material (equations in particular) and prepare you for the style and types of question that often appear on the exam. Tests Learning Outcomes 1,3,6.


Problem Sheets


MethodPercentage contribution
Project 40%
Theory examination  (2.5 hours) 60%

Linked modules

Pre-requisites: MATH1008 or SOES2028 OR MATH1009 and SOES2010

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