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Melissa Moulton

Research Scientist/Engineer Principal

Affiliate Assistant Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering





Research Interests

Coastal and Nearshore Processes, Environmental Fluid Mechanics, Remote Sensing, Beach Hazard Prediction


Dr. Moulton is a coastal physical oceanographer who studies the dynamics and impacts of rip currents, coastal storms, and inner shelf processes using remote sensing, in situ observations, laboratory experiments, and numerical models.


B.A. Physics, Amherst College, 2009

Ph.D. Physical Oceanography, MIT/WHOI Joint Program, 2016


2000-present and while at APL-UW

Modeled coastal–ocean pathways of land-sourced contaminants in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence

Moulton, M., and 8 others, "Modeled coastal–ocean pathways of land-sourced contaminants in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence," J. Geophys. Res., 129, doi:10.1029/2023JC019685, 2024.

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7 Mar 2024

Extreme precipitation during Hurricane Florence, which made landfall in North Carolina in September 2018, led to breaches of hog waste lagoons, coal ash pits, and wastewater facilities. In the weeks following the storm, freshwater discharge carried pollutants, sediment, organic matter, and debris to the coastal ocean, contributing to beach closures, algae blooms, hypoxia, and other ecosystem impacts. Here, the ocean pathways of land-sourced contaminants following Hurricane Florence are investigated using the Regional Ocean Modeling System (ROMS) with a river point source with fixed water properties from a hydrologic model (WRF-Hydro) of the Cape Fear River Basin, North Carolina's largest watershed. Patterns of contaminant transport in the coastal ocean are quantified with a finite duration tracer release based on observed flooding of agricultural and industrial facilities. A suite of synthetic events also was simulated to investigate the sensitivity of the river plume transport pathways to river discharge and wind direction. The simulated Hurricane Florence discharge event led to westward (downcoast) transport of contaminants in a coastal current, along with intermittent storage and release of material in an offshore (bulge) or eastward (upcoast) region near the river mouth, modulated by alternating upwelling and downwelling winds. The river plume patterns led to a delayed onset and long duration of contaminants affecting beaches 100 km to the west, days to weeks after the storm. Maps of the onset and duration of hypothetical water quality hazards for a range of weather conditions may provide guidance to managers on the timing of swimming/shellfishing advisories and water quality sampling.

Two-dimensional inverse energy cascade in a laboratory surf zone for varying wave directional spread

Baker, C.M., M. Moulton, C.C. Chickadel, E.S. Nuss, M.L. Palmsten, and K.L. Brodie, "Two-dimensional inverse energy cascade in a laboratory surf zone for varying wave directional spread," Phys. Fluids, 35, doi:10.1063/5.0169895, 2023.

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1 Dec 2023

Surfzone eddies enhance the dispersion and transport of contaminants, bacteria, and larvae across the nearshore, altering coastal water quality and ecosystem health. During directionally spread wave conditions, vertical vortices (horizontal eddies) are injected near the ends of breaking crests. Energy associated with these eddies may be transferred to larger-scale, low-frequency rotational motions through an inverse energy cascade, consistent with two-dimensional turbulence. However, our understanding of the relationships between the wave conditions and the dynamics and energetics of low-frequency surfzone eddies are largely based on numerical modeling. Here, we test these relationships with remotely sensed and in situ observations from large-scale directional wave basin experiments with varying wave conditions over alongshore-uniform barred bathymetry. Surface velocities derived with particle image velocimetry were employed to assess the spatial scales of low-frequency surfzone eddies and compute structure functions with alongshore velocities. Second-order structure functions for directionally spread waves (σθ ≥ 10°) are consistent with energy flux to larger or smaller length scales, while normally incident, unidirectional waves do not display this behavior. Third-order structure functions suggest that the surfzone flows exhibit a bidirectional energy cascade — a direct cascade to smaller and inverse cascade to larger length scales — during large directional spreads waves (σθ ≥ 18°). However, there is not decisive evidence of an inverse energy cascade for moderate directional spreads (σθ ≥ 10°). Energy flux varies by cross-shore location and increases with increasing directional spread and wave height. Eddy decorrelation length scales weakly depend on wave directional spread. These findings advance our understanding of the dynamics linking wave breaking to large-scale rotational motions that enhance mixing and lead to rip currents, important conduits for cross-shore material exchange.

Measurements of nearshore ocean-surface kinematics through coherent arrays of free-drifting buoys

Rainville, E., J. Thomson, M. Moulton, and M. Derakhti, "Measurements of nearshore ocean-surface kinematics through coherent arrays of free-drifting buoys," Earth Syst. Sci. Data, 15, 5135-5151, doi:10.5194/essd-15-5135-2023, 2023.

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27 Nov 2023

Surface gravity wave breaking occurs along coastlines in complex spatial and temporal patterns that significantly impact erosion, scalar transport, and flooding. Numerical models are used to predict wave breaking and associated processes but many lack sufficient evaluation with observations. To fill the need for more nearshore wave measurements, we deployed coherent arrays of small-scale, free-drifting buoys named microSWIFTs. The microSWIFT is a small buoy equipped with a GPS module to measure the buoy's position, horizontal velocities, and an inertial measurement unit (IMU) to directly measure the buoy's rotation rates, accelerations, and heading. Measurements were collected over a 27 d field experiment in October 2021 at the US Army Corps of Engineers Field Research Facility in Duck, NC. The microSWIFTs were deployed as a series of coherent arrays, meaning they all sampled simultaneously with a common time reference, leading to a rich spatial and temporal dataset during each deployment. Measurements spanned offshore significant wave heights ranging from 0.5 to 3 m and peak wave periods ranging from 5 to 15 s over the entire experiment.

The completed dataset consists of 67 deployment files that contain 971 drift tracks that contain all associated data. We use an attitude and heading reference system (AHRS) 9-degrees-of-freedom Kalman filter to rotate the measured accelerations from the reference frame of the buoy to the Earth reference frame. We then use the corrected accelerations to compute the vertical velocity and sea-surface elevation. We give example evaluations of wave spectral energy density estimates from individual microSWIFTs compared with a nearby acoustic wave and current (AWAC) sensor. A zero-crossing algorithm is applied to each buoy time series of sea-surface elevation to extract realizations of measured surface gravity waves, yielding 116 307 wave realizations throughout the experiment. We also compute significant wave height estimates from the aggregate wave realizations and compare these estimates with the nearby AWAC estimates. An example of spatial variability in cross-shore velocity and vertical acceleration is explored. Wave-breaking events, detected by high-intensity vertical acceleration peaks, are explored, and the cross-shore distribution of all breaking events detected in the experiment is shown. A total of 3419 wave-breaking events were detected across the entire experiment. These data are available at https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.hx3ffbgk0 (Rainville et al., 2023) and will be used to investigate nearshore wave kinematics, transport of buoyant particles, and wave-breaking processes.

More Publications

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