Physical transport processes such as the circulation and mixing of waters largely determine the spatial distribution of materials in the ocean. They also establish the physical environment within which biogeochemical and other processes transform materials, including naturally occurring nutrients and human-made contaminants that may sustain or harm the region’s living resources. Thus, understanding and modeling the transport and distribution of materials provides a crucial substrate for determining the effects of biological, geological, and chemical processes. The wide range of scales in which these physical processes operate includes microscale droplets and bubbles; small-scale turbulence in buoyant plumes and the near-surface “mixed” layer; submeso-scale fronts, convergent and divergent flows, and small eddies; larger mesoscale quasi- geostrophic eddies; and the overall large-scale circulation of the Gulf of Mexico and its interaction with the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea; along with air-sea interaction on longer timescales. The circulation and mixing processes that operate near the Gulf of Mexico coasts, where most human activities occur, are strongly affected by wind-and river-induced currents and are further modified by the area’s complex topography. Gulf of Mexico physical processes are also characterized by strong linkages between coastal/shelf and deeper offshore waters that determine connectivity to the basin’s interior. This physical connectivity influences the transport of materials among different coastal areas within the Gulf of Mexico and can extend to adjacent basins. Major advances enabled by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative in the observation, understanding, and modeling of all of these aspects of the Gulf ’s physical environment are summarized in this article, and key priorities for future work are also identified.
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