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James Girton

Head, OPD Department & Principal Oceanographer

Affiliate Assistant Professor, Oceanography





Research Interests

Overflows and Deep-Water Formation, Internal Waves, Mesoscale Eddies, Oceanic Surface and Bottom Boundary Layers, Measurements of Ocean Velocity Through Motionally-Induced Voltages


James Girton's research primarily investigates ocean processes involving small-scale turbulence and mixing and their influence on larger-scale flows. An important part of physical oceanography is the collection of novel datasets to shed new light on important physical processes, and to this end Dr. Girton's research has frequently drawn upon the widely under-utilized electromagnetic velocity profiling technique developed by Tom Sanford (his Ph.D. advisor and frequent collaborator). Instruments utilizing this technique include the expendable XCP, the full-depth free-falling AVP, and the autonomous long-duration EM-APEX. Each of these instruments has a unique role to play in the study of phenomena ranging from deep boundary currents and overflows to upper ocean mixing and internal waves.

In addition to being less well-understood elements of ocean physics, many of these phenomena are potentially important for the behavior of the large-scale ocean circulation, particularly the meridional overturning that transports heat to subpolar and polar regions and sequesters atmospheric gases in the deep ocean. Prediction of future climate change by coupled ocean-atmosphere models requires reliable predictions of ocean circulation, so physically-based improvements to parameterizations of mixing, boundary stresses and internal waves in such models are an ongoing goal.

Department Affiliation

Ocean Physics


B.A. Physics, Swarthmore College, 1993

Ph.D. Oceanography, University of Washington, 2001


Wave Glider Observations in the Southern Ocean

A Wave Glider autonomous surface vehicle will conduct a summer-season experiment to investigate ocean–shelf exchange on the West Antarctic Peninsula and frontal air–sea interaction over both the continental shelf and open ocean.

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4 Sep 2019

Southern Ocean climate change is at the heart of the ocean's response to anthropogenic forcing. Variations in South Polar atmospheric circulation patterns, fluctuations in the strength and position of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, and the intertwining intermediate deep water cells of the oceanic meridional overturning circulation have important impacts on the rate of ocean carbon sequestration, biological productivity, and the transport of heat to the melting continental ice shelves.

Submesoscale Mixed-Layer Dynamics at a Mid-Latitude Oceanic Front

SMILE: the Submesoscale MIxed-Layer Eddies experiment

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1 Mar 2017

This experiment is aimed at increasing our understanding of the role of lateral processes in mixed-layer dynamics through a series of ship surveys and Lagrangian array deployments. Instrument deployments and surveys target the upper ocean's adjustment to winter atmospheric forcing events in the North Pacific subtropical front, roughly 800 km north of Hawaii.

This study will improve understanding of 1–10-km scale lateral processes in three-dimensional mixed-layer dynamics in a region of above-average atmospheric forcing, typical mid-ocean mesoscale advection and straining, and typical submesoscale activity. The results will improve the physical basis of mixed-layer parameterizations, leading to better model predictions of air-sea fluxes, gas transfer, and biological productivity.

Diapycnal and Isopycnal Mixing Experiment in the Southern Ocean (DIMES)

DIMES is a US/UK field program aimed at measuring diapycnal and isopycnal mixing in the Southern Ocean, along the tilting isopycnals of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current.



2000-present and while at APL-UW

Hydraulic control of flow in a multi-passage system connecting two basins

Tan, S., and 7 others including J.B. Girton, "Hydraulic control of flow in a multi-passage system connecting two basins," J. Fluid Mech., 940, doi:10.1017/jfm.2022.212, 2022.

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5 Apr 2022

When a fluid stream in a conduit splits in order to pass around an obstruction, it is possible that one branch will be critically controlled while the other remains not so. This is apparently the situation in Pacific Ocean abyssal circulation, where most of the northward flow of Antarctic bottom water passes through the Samoan Passage, where it is hydraulically controlled, while the remainder is diverted around the Manihiki Plateau and is not controlled. These observations raise a number of questions concerning the dynamics necessary to support such a regime in the steady state, the nature of upstream influence and the usefulness of rotating hydraulic theory to predict the partitioning of volume transport between the two paths, which assumes the controlled branch is inviscid. Through the use of a theory for constant potential vorticity flow and accompanying numerical model, we show that a steady-state regime similar to what is observed is dynamically possible provided that sufficient bottom friction is present in the uncontrolled branch. In this case, the upstream influence that typically exists for rotating channel flow is transformed into influence into how the flow is partitioned. As a result, the partitioning of volume flux can still be reasonably well predicted with an inviscid theory that exploits the lack of upstream influence.

Destratification and restratification of the spring boundary layer in a subtropical front

Kunze, E., J.B. Mickett, and J.B. Girton, "Destratification and restratification of the spring boundary layer in a subtropical front," J. Phys. Oceanogr., 51, 2861-2882, doi:10.1175/JPO-D-21-0003.1, 2021.

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1 Sep 2021

Destratification and restratification of a ~50-m thick surface boundary layer in the North Pacific Subtropical Front are examined during 24–31 March 2017 in the wake of a storm using a ~ 5-km array of 23 chi-augmented EM profiling floats, as well as towyo and ADCP ship surveys, shipboard air-sea surface fluxes and parameterized shortwave penetrative radiation. During the first four days, nocturnal destabilizing buoyancy-fluxes mixed the surface layer over almost its full depth every night followed by restratification to N ~ 2 x 10-3 rad s-1 during daylight. Starting on 28 March, nocturnal destabilizing buoyancy-fluxes weakened because weakening winds reduced the latent heat-flux. Shallow mixing and stratified transition layers formed above ~20-m depth. The remnant layer in the lower part of the surface layer was insulated from destabilizing surface forcing. Penetrative radiation, turbulent buoyancy-fluxes and horizontal buoyancy advection all contribute to restratification of this remnant layer, closing the budget to within measurement uncertainties. Buoyancy advective restratification (slumping) plays a minor role. Before 28 March, measured advective restratificationt is confined to daytime, is often destratifying and is much stronger than predictions of geostrophic adjustment, mixed-layer eddy instability and Ekman buoyancy-flux predictions because of storm-forced inertial shear. Starting on 28 March, the subinertial envelope of measured buoyancy advective restratification in the remnant layer resembles MLE parameterization predictions.

Submarine canyon oxygen anomaly caused by mixing and boundary–interior exchange

McPhee, Shaw, E.E., E. Kunze, and J.B. Girton, "Submarine canyon oxygen anomaly caused by mixing and boundary–interior exchange," Geophys. Res. Lett., 48, doi:10.1029/2021GL092995, 2021.

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28 May 2021

Closely spaced CTD stations showed elevated oxygen within Monterey Submarine Canyon. Anomalously high (2–5 μmol kg-1) dissolved oxygen was found between 600–1,100 m in the O2 minimum, co-located with a turbulence hotspot caused by convergence of upcanyon, semidiurnal internal tidal energy flux. Furthermore, the oxygen anomaly extended >10 km downcanyon at the same depth and isopycnals of a previously identified intrusion predicted from buoyancy conservation. We show that dissolved oxygen and fine suspended particles act as independent tracers to (a) validate previous microstructure observations of intense turbulence extending >400 m above the bed (mab) at the canyon hotspot, and (b) track boundary-interior exchange driven by mixing in the form of isopyncal-spreading of anomalies away from a near-boundary source. This study demonstrates the use of oxygen, commonly measured with shipboard profiling, as a tool for tracking mixing and lateral dispersal.

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In The News

UW team sending autonomous surfboard to explore Antarctic waters

UW News, Hannah Hickey

The research project will use the Wave Glider to investigate the summer conditions near Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula, to better understand how the warming ocean interacts with ice shelves that protrude from the shore. It will then head across Drake Passage, braving some of the stormiest seas on the planet.

23 Oct 2019

One year into the mission, autonomous ocean robots set a record in survey of Antarctic ice shelf

UW News, Hannah Hickey

A team of ocean robots deployed in January 2018 have, over the past year, been the first self-guided ocean robots to successfully travel under an ice sheet and return to report long-term observations.

23 Jan 2019

Underwater robots survive a year probing climate change's effects on Antarctic ice

GeekWire, Alan Boyle

A squadron of Seagliders and EM-APEX floats was sent to probe the waters beneath the Dotson Ice Shelf in Antarctica one year ago. They have transmitted their data via satellite successfully, proving that these robots and approach can work in this harsh, remote environment.

22 Jan 2019

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