Campus Map

James Girton

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


2000-present and while at APL-UW

Autonomous control of marine floats in the presence of dynamic, uncertain ocean currents

Troesch, M., S. Chien, Y. Chao, J. Farrara, J. Girton, and J. Dunlap, "Autonomous control of marine floats in the presence of dynamic, uncertain ocean currents," Rob. Auton. Syst., 108, 100-114, doi:10.1016/j.robot.2018.04.004, 2018.

More Info

1 Oct 2018

A methodology is described for control of vertically profiling floats that uses an imperfect predictive model of ocean currents. In this approach, the floats have control only over their depth. This control authority is combined with an imperfect model of ocean currents to attempt to force the floats to maintain position. First, the impact of model accuracy on the ability to station keep (e.g. maintain X–Y position) using simulated planning and nature (ground-truth in simulation) models is studied. In this study, the impact of batch versus continuous planning is examined. In batch planning the float depth plan is derived for an extended period of time and then executed open loop. In continuous planning the depth plan is updated with the actual position and the remainder of the plan re-planned based on the new information. In these simulation results are shown that (a) active control can significantly improve station keeping with even an imperfect predictive model and (b) continuous planning can mitigate the impact of model inaccuracy. Second, the effect of using heuristic path completion estimators in search are studied. In general, using a more conservative estimator increases search quality but commensurately increases the amount of search and therefore computation time. Third are presented results from an April 2015 deployment in the Pacific Ocean that show that even with an imperfect model of ocean currents, model-based control can enhance float control performance.

Development, implementation, and validation of a California coastal ocean modeling, data assimilation, and forecasting system

Chao, Y., and 8 others including J.B. Girton, "Development, implementation, and validation of a California coastal ocean modeling, data assimilation, and forecasting system," Deep Sea Res. II, 151, 49-62, doi:10.1016/j.dsr2.2017.04.013, 2018.

More Info

1 May 2018

A three-dimensional, near real-time data-assimilative modeling system for the California coastal ocean is presented. The system consists of a Regional Ocean Modeling System (ROMS) forced by the North American Mesoscale Forecast System (NAM). The ocean model has a horizontal resolution of approximately three kilometers and utilizes a multi-scale three-dimensional variational (3DVAR) data assimilation methodology. The system is run in near real-time to produce a nowcast every six hours and a 72-hour forecast every day. The performance of this nowcast system is presented using results from a six-year period of 2009–2015.

Measurements of directional wave spectra and wind stress from a Wave Glider autonomous surface vehicle

Thomson, J., J.B. Girton, R. Jha, and A. Trapani "Measurements of directional wave spectra and wind stress from a Wave Glider autonomous surface vehicle," J. Atmos. Ocean. Technol., 35, 347-363, doi:10.1175/JTECH-D-17-0091.1, 2018.

More Info

1 Feb 2018

Methods for measuring waves and winds from a Wave Glider Autonomous Surface Vehicle (ASV) are described and evaluated. The wave method utilizes the frequency spectra of orbital velocities measured by GPS, and the wind stress method utilizes the frequency spectra of turbulent wind fluctuations measured by ultrasonic anemometer. Both methods evaluate contaminations from vehicle motion. The methods were evaluated with 68 days of data over a full range of open ocean conditions, in which wave heights varied from 1 to 8 m and wind speeds varied from 1 to 17 m/s. Reference data were collected using additional sensors onboard the vehicle. For the waves method, several additional datasets are included which use independently moored Datawell waverider buoys as reference data. Bulk wave parameters are determined waverider buoys as reference data. Bulk wave parameters are determined within 5% error, with biases of less than 5%. Wind stress is determined within 4% error, with 1% bias. Wave directional spectra also compare well, although the Wave Glider results have more spread at low frequencies.

More Publications

In The News

Ice-diving drones embark on risky Antarctic mission

Scientific American, Mark Harris

To forecast sea level rise, a flotilla of undersea robots must map the unseen bottom of a melting ice shelf — if they are not sunk by it.

6 Dec 2017

Scientists get robots ready to study Antarctic ice shelves from below, with $2M boost from Paul Allen

GeekWire, Alan Boyle

Researchers from the University of Washington and Columbia University are getting ready for an unprecedented months-long campaign to study Antarctica’s ice shelves from the ocean below. Robotic Seagliders and EM-APEX profiling floats will be used to probe the ocean under ice shelves.

6 Nov 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

More News Items

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