Contact details

Office 310 Castle Street, room 152
Tel +64 3 479 5365

Academic qualifications

BSc(Hons) University of Southampton, 2007
PhD University of Otago, 2018

Research interests

  • Mesoscale ocean dynamics (including oceanic fronts, shelf / slope exchange processes and boundary currents)
  • Flow-topography interactions (particularly at the shelf-break and around submarine canyons)
  • Variability and drivers of upper-ocean temperatures and extremes, including marine heatwaves
  • Regional oceanography of the western South Pacific
  • Observational Physical Oceanography

Google Scholar: Robert Owain Smith

Rob is a physical oceanographer interested in meso- and submesoscale (1-100 km) ocean processes. His research currently focuses on oceanic front dynamics, shelf-slope exchange processes and marine heatwaves around the New Zealand coastline. He uses a combination of in-situ observations (ships, drifters and moored instruments) and satellite remote-sensing to address questions related to his research. Rob lectures in the Department of Marine Science. During his PhD at the University of Otago, he investigated the roles of bathymetry and wind forcing in controlling the physical characteristics of the Subtropical Frontal Zone in the Tasman Seas. Learn more about Rob's current research interests below:

Marine Heatwaves around New Zealand

Marine heatwaves (MHWs) are extended periods of time when ocean temperatures are extremely warm. They are now recognised as having significant impacts on marine ecosystems, communities and industry. New Zealand recently experienced an unprecedented combined ocean-atmosphere heatwave, with wide-ranging effects on terrestrial and marine systems [Salinger et al., 2019]. We're interested in better understanding marine heatwaves around New Zealand, particularly their physical characteristics and drivers. We're also interested in identifying areas where local oceanographic variability (e.g. tidal mixing, internal wave activity and localised upwelling) may create refugia from these extreme events.
Marine heatwaves

Shelf-Slope Exchange at the Southland Front, New Zealand

Physical exchanges between continental shelf and offshore water masses can strongly influence the marine physics, chemistry and biology surrounding continental shelf breaks. We are interested in better understanding what processes lead to shelf/slope exchanges between New Zealand's shelf and subantarctic water masses, and what factors (including freshwater inputs, wind, stratification, boundary currents and submarine canyon topography) are most important for driving these exchanges. We're also interested in identifying the impact of shelf/ocean exchanges on shelf and offshore biogeochemistry.

Variability and Dynamics of Oceanic Fronts

Fronts in the ocean are important, dynamic boundaries that separate different water masses. They have been recognised to modulate air-sea interaction, enhance biological activity and can act as foraging hotspots for marine predators. Using ocean observations and model data, our aim is to better understand the factors and processes driving the dynamics of fronts in the open-ocean and coastal seas. We're also interested in the biogeochemical responses to oceanic fronts and the role that physical processes play in these.

Prospective students

I am always interested in hearing from prospective students. If you'd like to join us in the Department of Marine Science please get in touch with me. Below are some potential topics for postgraduate research supervision with me:

  • The identification of potential marine climate change refugia around New Zealand from Himawari-8 satellite data
  • Tidal pumping and shelf-break nutrient enrichment near the Otago and/or Kaikoura submarine canyon systems
  • The role of tidal and non-tidal processes in creating an 'island mixing front' around the Chatham Islands, New Zealand
  • Local-scale oceanographic variability along the coastline of Otago, New Zealand: Identification and causes

Current students

  • Jack Beagley, PhD: Circulation modelling in fjords enhances understanding of carbon burial
  • Felix Cook, PhD: Marine heatwaves around New Zealand: Identification and Causes. With Moninya Roughan (University of New South Wales) and Nicolas Cullen (Geography, University of Otago).
  • Erik Johnson, PhD: Physical Properties and Processes in New Zealand's Dynamical Subtropical Front. With Professor Steve Wing and Dr Ata Suanda (University of Otago).
  • David Johnston, PhD: Sentinels of the Southern Ocean: Southern Right Whales (Eubalaena australis) as indicators of oceanic productivity. With Professor Steve Dawson and Associate Professor Will Rayment (University of Otago).
  • Katie Nelson, MSc: Heat budget analysis of Blueskin Bay
  • Jordan Sparrow, MSc: Phytoplankton variability in the Otago Harbour and adjacent shelf seas

Completed students

  • Mitchell Chandler, BSc(Hons) in Geophysics: Tracing the 'Tasman Leakage': Flow in the boundary current off Fiordland. With Dr Melissa Bowen (University of Auckland).
    Mitchell is now a PhD candidate at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, USA.
  • Tim Baxter, PGDipSci in Marine Science: Topographic Upwelling at the Three Kings Islands, New Zealand and MSc in Marine Science: The influence of tidal and non-tidal processes on a cold-water pool surrounding the Three Kings Island's, New Zealand.
  • Emma Harte, MSc: The influence of oceanographic controls on dispersal of the Patagonian toothfish on the Falkland Island Plateau. With Professor Gary Wilson (University of Otago).
    Emma is now Marine Conservation officer at Falklands Conservation.


  • EAOS 111 Earth and Ocean Science
  • MARI 112 Marine Biology: The Living Ocean
  • MARI 201 Oceanography: The Physical Ocean
  • MARI 301 Marine Ecology and Ecosystems
  • MARI 322 Coastal and Shelf Seas Oceanography
  • MARI 401 Advanced Methods in Marine Science
  • OCEN 450 Special Topic: Data Analysis Methods in Marine Science (Co-ordinator)


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