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Jim Thomson

Senior Principal Oceanographer

Associate Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering





Research Interests

Environmental Fluid Mechanics, Ocean Surface Waves, Marine Renewable Energy (tidal and wave), Coastal and Nearshore Processes, Ocean Instrumentation


Dr. Thomson studies waves, currents, and turbulence by combining field observations and remote sensing techniques


B.A. Physics, Middlebury College, 2000

Ph.D. Physical Oceanography, MIT/WHOI, 2006


Coastal Ocean Dynamics in the Arctic — CODA

Arctic coastlines are eroding at rates of meters per year. As the whole Arctic shifts into a modern epoch of seasonal ice cover and warmer temperatures, Arctic coastal processes are shifting, too. The overall goal of this research is to improve scientific understanding of wave–ice–ocean interactions along the Arctic coast, with particular attention to the oceanographic parameters that affect erosion.

8 Jan 2019

Stratified Ocean Dynamics of the Arctic — SODA

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31 Oct 2016

Vertical and lateral water properties and density structure with the Arctic Ocean are intimately related to the ocean circulation, and have profound consequences for sea ice growth and retreat as well as for prpagation of acoustic energy at all scales. Our current understanding of the dynamics governing arctic upper ocean stratification and circulation derives largely from a period when extensive ice cover modulated the oceanic response to atmospheric forcing. Recently, however, there has been significant arctic warming, accompanied by changes in the extent, thickness distribution, and properties of the arctic sea ice cover. The need to understand these changes and their impact on arctic stratification and circulation, sea ice evolution, and the acoustic environment motivate this initiative.

Inner Shelf Dynamics

The inner shelf region begins just offshore of the surf zone, where breaking by surface gravity waves dominate, and extends inshore of the mid-shelf, where theoretical Ekman transport is fully realized. Our main goal is to provide provide improved understanding and prediction of this difficult environment. This will involve efforts to assess the influence of the different boundaries — surf zone, mid and outer shelf, air-water interface, and bed — on the flow, mixing and stratification of the inner shelf. We will also gain information and predictive understanding of remotely sensed surface processes and their connection to processes in the underlying water column.

15 Dec 2015

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Mapping Underwater Turbulence with Sound

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9 Apr 2018

To dock at a terminal, large Washington State ferries use their powerful engines to brake, generating a lot of turbulence. Doppler sonar instruments are capturing an accurate picture of the turbulence field during docking procedures and how it affects terminal structures and the seabed. This research is a collaborative effort between APL-UW and the UW College of Engineering, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Marine Renewable Energy: Kvichak River Project

At a renewable energy site in the village of Igiugig, Alaska, an APL-UW and UW Mechanical Engineering team measured the flow around an electricity-generating turbine installed in the Kvichak River. They used modified SWIFT buoys and new technologies to measure the natural river turbulence as well as that produced by the turbine itself. The turbine has the capacity to generate a sizable share of the village's power needs.

25 Sep 2014

Ferry-Based Monitoring of Puget Sound Currents

Acoustic Doppler Current Profilers are installed on two Washington State Department of Transportation ferries to measure current velocities in a continuous transect along their routes. WSDOT ferries occupy strategic cross-sections where circulation and exchange of Puget Sound and Pacific Ocean waters occurs. A long and continuous time series will provide unprecedented measurements of water mass movement and transport between the basins.

9 May 2014

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2000-present and while at APL-UW

Maximum wave heights from global model reanalysis

Barbariol, F., J.-R. Bidlot, L. Cavaleri, M. Sclavo, J. Thomson, and A. Benetazzo, "Maximum wave heights from global model reanalysis," Prog. Oceanogr., EOR, doi:10.1016/j.pocean.2019.03.009, 2019.

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27 Mar 2019

Very large waves populate the world oceans and challenge seafarers and offshore structures, but their long-term and global assessment is uneasy because of the scarcity of observations and their narrow time-coverage. Modern model reanalysis datasets with high spatio-temporal extent and resolution represent a valuable tool for this scope. In this paper, we use for the first time reanalysis datasets to provide a long-term and global statistical assessment of the maximum wave parameters, namely crest, crest-to-trough and envelope heights. In particular, we rely on the ERA-Interim directional wave spectra that are used to estimate the parameters of the probability distributions of wave maxima. To represent the customary single-point observations we use time extreme statistical models, while to account for the three-dimensional geometry and short-crestedness of stormy ocean waves, the statistical models are extended to space-time. In order to evaluate the accuracy of the reanalysis-based wave maxima estimates we verify them against buoy and stereo-video wave observations gathered in the North Pacific Ocean. We then provide the global assessment of maximum crest, crest-to-trough and envelope heights during typical and extreme conditions, showing the regions attaining the largest values, which we show are located in the mid-latitude storm belts, in particular in the North Atlantic Ocean. With respect to previous wave climate studies that focused on the significant wave height only, in this study we quantify the maximum wave height extent, also highlighting the role of mean wave steepness and kurtosis (measures of nonlinearity) and spectral bandwidth (measure of irregularity). Beside this, we show that the contribution of the short-crestedness is significant and that taking it into account may be relevant for the safety of navigation, ship routing and marine structural design.

Wake measurements from a hydrokinetic river turbine

Guerra, M., and J. Thomson, "Wake measurements from a hydrokinetic river turbine," Renewable Energy, EOR, doi:10.1016/j.renene.2019.02.052, 2019.

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15 Feb 2019

During the boreal summer of 2015, a full-scale hydrokinetic turbine was deployed in the Kvichak River (Alaska), delivering electricity to the village of Igiugig. Here, quantification and analysis of the hydrodynamic modifications in the river caused by the turbine are presented. Field observations are used to produce a unique three-dimensional data set of fluid velocities in the vicinity of the turbine before and after turbine deployment. Three dynamic regions are distinguished in the wake. There is an induction zone just upstream of the turbine, where velocities decrease and turbulence increases. There is a near wake just downstream of the turbine, where the reduced velocities recover slightly and the elevated turbulence decays rapidly. Finally, there is a far wake well beyond the turbine, where reduced velocities are persistent and turbulence remains elevated. The results are used in a coarse energy budget for the river, including quantifying the total energy dissipated by turbulence in the near wake. This wake dissipation is found to be almost as large as the energy extracted for electricity generation, even when the turbine is not operational.

Ocean surface turbulence in newly formed marginal ice zones

Smith, M., and J. Thomson, "Ocean surface turbulence in newly formed marginal ice zones," J. Geophys. Res., EOR, doi:10.1029/2018JC014405, 2019.

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1 Feb 2019

Near‐surface turbulent kinetic energy dissipation rates are altered by the presence of sea ice in the marginal ice zone, with significant implications for exchanges at the air‐ice‐ocean interface. Observations spanning a range of conditions are used to parameterize dissipation rates in marginal ice zones with relatively thin, newly formed ice, and two regimes are identified. In both regimes, the turbulent dissipation rates are matched to the turbulent input rate, which is formulated as the surface stress acting on roughness elements moving at an effective transfer velocity. In marginal ice zones with waves, the short waves are the roughness elements, and the phase speed of these waves is the effective transfer velocity. The wave amplitudes are attenuated by the ice, and thus, the size of the roughness elements is reduced; this is parameterized as a reduction in the effective transfer velocity. When waves are sufficiently small, the ice floes are the roughness elements, and the relative velocity between the sea ice and the ocean is the effective transfer velocity. A scaling is introduced to determine the appropriate transfer velocity in a marginal ice zone based on wave height, ice thickness and concentration, and ice‐ocean shear. The results suggest that turbulence underneath new sea ice is mostly related to the wind forcing and that marginal ice zones generally have less turbulence than the open ocean under similar wind forcing.

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In The News

State investigators focus on nets plugged with mussels in Atlantic salmon net-pen failure

The Seattle Times, Lynda Mapes

Cooke Aquaculture’s maintenance practices at its collapsed Atlantic salmon farm at Cypress Island have drawn the attention of state investigators after nets were found fouled with mussels and other sea life. Fluid mechanics expert Jim Thomson notes that nets clogged with sea life create greater drag forces in the ocean currents, increasing the risk of structural failure.

26 Jan 2018

Partners in Extreme Wave Modeling

Engineering Out Loud Podcast, Jens Odegaard

How do you forecast and model huge waves in the open ocean? As part of the National Marine Renewable Energy Center, researchers at Oregon State University and the University of Washington are modeling and forecasting extreme waves to help inform wave energy technology.

25 Oct 2017

Wave Glider surfs across stormy Drake Passage in Antarctica

UW News, Hannah Hickey

The University of Washington sent a robotic surf board to ride the waves collecting data from Antarctica to South America.

20 Sep 2017

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Record of Invention Number: 48200

Jim Thomson, Alex de Klerk, Joe Talbert


6 Nov 2017

SWIFT: Surface Wave Instrument Float with Tracking

Record of Invention Number: 46566

Jim Thomson, Alex De Klerk, Joe Talbert


24 Jun 2013

Heave Place Mooring for Wave Energy Conversion (WEC) via Tension Changes

Record of Invention Number: 46558

Jim Thomson, Alex De Klerk, Joe Talbert


19 Jun 2013

Acoustics Air-Sea Interaction & Remote Sensing Center for Environmental & Information Systems Center for Industrial & Medical Ultrasound Electronic & Photonic Systems Ocean Engineering Ocean Physics Polar Science Center