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Jim Thomson

Senior Principal Oceanographer

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


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.

Wave Measurements at Ocean Weather Station PAPA

As part of a larger project to understand the impact of surface waves on the ocean mixed layer, APL-UW is measuring waves at Ocean Weather Station Papa, a long-term observational site at N 50°, W 145°.

29 Aug 2019

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

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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


Stevens, B., and many others including K. Drushka, S. Iyer, and J. Thomson, "EUREC4A," Earth Syst. Sci. Data, 13, 4067-4119, doi:10.5194/essd-13-4067-2021, 2021.

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25 Aug 2021

The science guiding the EUREC4A campaign and its measurements is presented. EUREC4A comprised roughly 5 weeks of measurements in the downstream winter trades of the North Atlantic — eastward and southeastward of Barbados. Through its ability to characterize processes operating across a wide range of scales, EUREC4A marked a turning point in our ability to observationally study factors influencing clouds in the trades, how they will respond to warming, and their link to other components of the earth system, such as upper-ocean processes or the life cycle of particulate matter. This characterization was made possible by thousands (2500) of sondes distributed to measure circulations on meso- (200 km) and larger (500 km) scales, roughly 400 h of flight time by four heavily instrumented research aircraft; four global-class research vessels; an advanced ground-based cloud observatory; scores of autonomous observing platforms operating in the upper ocean (nearly 10 000 profiles), lower atmosphere (continuous profiling), and along the air–sea interface; a network of water stable isotopologue measurements; targeted tasking of satellite remote sensing; and modeling with a new generation of weather and climate models. In addition to providing an outline of the novel measurements and their composition into a unified and coordinated campaign, the six distinct scientific facets that EUREC4A explored — from North Brazil Current rings to turbulence-induced clustering of cloud droplets and its influence on warm-rain formation — are presented along with an overview of EUREC4A's outreach activities, environmental impact, and guidelines for scientific practice. Track data for all platforms are standardized and accessible at https://doi.org/10.25326/165 (Stevens, 2021), and a film documenting the campaign is provided as a video supplement.

Warm and cool nearshore plumes connecting the surf zone to the inner shelf

Moulton, M., C.C. Chickadel, and J. Thomson, "Warm and cool nearshore plumes connecting the surf zone to the inner shelf," Geophys. Res. Lett., 48, doi:10.1029/2020GL091675, 2021.

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28 May 2021

Cross‐shore transport of larvae, pollutants, and sediment between the surf zone and the inner shelf is important for coastal water quality and ecosystems. Rip currents are known to be a dominant pathway for exchange, but the effects of horizontal temperature and salinity gradients are not well understood. Airborne visible and infrared imaging performed on the California coast shows warm and cool plumes driven by rip currents in the surf zone and extending onto the shelf, with temperature differences of approximately 1°C. The airborne imagery and modeled temperatures and tracers indicate that warm plumes exhibit more lateral spreading and transport material in a buoyant near‐surface layer, whereas cool plumes move offshore in a subsurface layer. The average cross‐shore extent of warm plumes at the surface is approximately one surfzone width larger than for cool plumes. Future work may explore the sensitivity of nearshore plumes to density patterns, wave forcing, and bathymetry.

Rapid deterministic wave prediction using a sparse array of buoys

Fisher, A., J. Thomson, and M. Schwendeman, "Rapid deterministic wave prediction using a sparse array of buoys," Ocean Eng., 228, doi:10.1016/j.oceaneng.2021.108871, 2021.

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15 May 2021

A long-standing problem in maritime operations and ocean development projects has been the prediction of instantaneous wave energy. Wave measurements collected using an array of freely drifting arrays of Surface Wave Instrument Float with Tracking (SWIFT) buoys are used to test methods for phase-resolved wave prediction in a wide range of observed sea states. Using a linear inverse model in directionally-rich, broadbanded wave fields can improve instantaneous heave predictions by an average of 63% relative to statistical forecasts based on wave spectra. Numerical simulations of a Gaussian sea, seeded with synthetic buoys, were used to supplement observations and characterize the spatiotemporal extent of reconstruction accuracy. Observations and numerical results agree well with theoretical deterministic prediction zones proposed in previous studies and suggest that the phase-resolved forecast horizon is between 1–3 average wave periods for a maximum measurement interval of 10 wave periods for ocean wave fields observed during the experiment. Prediction accuracy is dependent on the geometry and duration of the measurements and is discussed in the context of the nonlinearity and bandwidth of incident wave fields.

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In The News

U.S. icebreaker gap with Russia a growing concern as Arctic 'cold war' heats up

Washington Times, Mike Glenn

Warming trends have spurred a chase for trade routes, natural resources at top of the world. Vessels like the Healy and the Polar Star are the most effective tools for maintaining access to the icy regions for scientific, economic and security purposes, advocates say.

23 Sep 2021

Spiraling Crisis: The Alarming Convergence of Climate Change and Pandemics

ThinkTech Hawaii

In this video documentary available on YouTube, Jim Thomson is interviewed to share the impacts of the pandemic on his research into coastal ocean dynamics in the Arctic.

16 Aug 2021

Using advanced acoustic technology to understand wave conditions and climate change in the Arctic

Environment Coastal & Offshore, Torbjørn Goa

Thomson’s research in the Arctic has paired Nortek Signature500 acoustic Doppler current profilers (ADCPs) mounted on fixed moorings with drifters equipped with Signature1000 ADCPs to get a complete picture of the Arctic’s changing wave conditions.

29 Mar 2021

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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