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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


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

Measuring Vessel Wakes in Rich Passage, Puget Sound

APL-UW is using wave buoys to measure the wakes of Washington State DOT car ferries as they transit through Rich Passage. The objective is to assess the effectiveness of the speed reduction protocol through the passage, which is intended to minimize the vessel wake and minimize any subsequent changes to the shoreline.

22 Oct 2014

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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

The influence of wind and waves on spreading and mixing in the Fraser River plume

Kastner, S.E., A.R. Horner-Devine, and J. Thomson, "The influence of wind and waves on spreading and mixing in the Fraser River plume," J. Geophys. Res., EOR, doi:10.1029/2018JC013765, 2018.

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5 Sep 2018

This study uses drifter‐based observations to investigate the role of wind and waves on spreading and mixing in the Fraser River plume. Local winter wind patterns commonly result in two distinct forcing conditions, moderate winds from the southeast (SE) and strong winds from the northwest (NW). We examine how these patterns influence the spreading and mixing dynamics of the plume. Under SE winds, the plume thins, spreads, and turns to the right (north) upon exiting the river mouth. Mixing is initially intense in the region of maximum spreading, but it is short‐lived. Under NW winds, which oppose the rightward tendency of the plume, the plume remains thicker, narrower, and flows directly across the Strait with a lateral front on its northern side. Mixing is initially lower than under SE forcing but persists further across the Strait. A Lagrangian stream‐normal momentum balance shows that wind and interfacial stress under NW conditions compress the sea surface height anomaly formed by the river discharge and guide the flow across the Strait. This reconfiguration changes spreading and mixing dynamics of the plume; plume spreading, which drives intense mixing under SE winds, is shut down under NW winds, and mixing rates are consequently much lower. Despite the initially lower mixing rates, the region of active mixing extends further under NW winds, resulting in higher net mixing. These results highlight that the wind, which is often a primary cause of increased plume mixing, can also significantly influence mixing by changing the geometry of the plume.

Attenuation and directional spreading of ocean waves during a storm event in the autumn Beaufort Sea marginal ice zone

Montiel, F., V.A. Squire, M. Doble, J. Thomson, and P. Wadhams, "Attenuation and directional spreading of ocean waves during a storm event in the autumn Beaufort Sea marginal ice zone," J. Geophys. Res., 123, 5912-5932, doi:10.1029/2018JC013763, 2018.

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1 Aug 2018

This paper investigates the attenuation and directional spreading of large amplitude waves traveling through pancake ice. Directional spectral density is analyzed from in situ wave buoy data collected during a 3‐day storm event in October 2015 in the Beaufort Sea. Two proxy metrics for wave amplitude obtained from energy density spectra, namely, spectral amplitude and significant wave height, are used to track the waves as they propagate along transects through the array of buoys in the predominantly pancake ice field. Two types of wave buoys are used in the analysis and compared, exhibiting significant differences in the wave energy density and directionality estimates. Although exponential decay is observed predominantly, one of the two buoy types indicates a potential positive correlation between wave energy density and the occurrence of linear wave decay, as opposed to exponential decay, in accord with recent observations in the Antarctic marginal ice zone. Factors affecting the validity of this observation are discussed. An empirical power law with exponent 2.2 is also found to hold between the exponential attenuation coefficient and wave frequency. The directional content of the wave spectrum appears to decrease consistently along the wave transects, confirming that wave energy is being dissipated by the pancake ice as opposed to being scattered by ice cakes.

On the ocean wave attenuation rate in grease-pancake ice, a comparison of viscous layer propagation models with field data

De Santi, F., G. De Carolis, P. Olla, M. Doble, S. Cheng, H.H. Shen, P. Wadhams, and J. Thomson, "On the ocean wave attenuation rate in grease-pancake ice, a comparison of viscous layer propagation models with field data," J. Geophys. Res., 123, 5933-5948, doi:10.1029/2018JC013865, 2018.

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1 Aug 2018

The ability of viscous layer models to describe the attenuation of waves propagating in grease‐pancake ice covered ocean is investigated. In particular, the Keller's model (Keller, 1998; https://doi.org/10.1029/97JC02966), the two‐layer viscous model (De Carolis & Desiderio, 2002; https://doi.org/10.1016/S0375-9601(02)01503-7) and the close‐packing model (De Santi & Olla, 2017; arXiv:1512.05631) are extensively validated by using wave attenuation data collected during two different field campaigns (Weddell Sea, Antarctica, April 2000; western Arctic Ocean, autumn 2015). We use these data to inspect the performance of the three models by minimizing the differences between the measured and model wave attenuation; the retrieved ice thickness is then compared with measured data. The three models allow to fit the observation data but with important differences in the three cases. The close‐packing model shows good agreement with the data for values of the ice viscosity comparable to those of grease ice in laboratory experiments. For thin ice, the Keller's model performance is similar to that of the close‐packing model, while for thick ice much larger values of the ice viscosity are required, which reflects the different ability of the two models to take into account the effect of pancakes. The improvement of performance over the Keller's model achieved by the two‐layer viscous model is minimal, which reflects the marginal role in the dynamics of a finite eddy viscosity in the ice‐free layer. A good ice thickness retrieval can be obtained by considering the ice layer as the only source in the wave dynamics, so that the wind input can be disregarded.

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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