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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

Episodic reversal of autumn ice advance caused by release of ocean heat in the Beaufort Sea

Smith, M., S. Stammerjohn, O. Persson, L. Rainville, G. Liu, W. Perrie, R. Robertson, J. Jackson, and J. Thomson, "Episodic reversal of autumn ice advance caused by release of ocean heat in the Beaufort Sea," J. Geophys. Res., EOR, doi:10.1002/2018JC013764, 2018.

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12 Mar 2018

High‐resolution measurements of the air‐ice‐ocean system during an October 2015 event in the Beaufort Sea demonstrate how stored ocean heat can be released to temporarily reverse seasonal ice advance. Strong on‐ice winds over a vast fetch caused mixing and release of heat from the upper ocean. This heat was sufficient to melt large areas of thin, newly formed pancake ice; an average of 10 MJ/m2 was lost from the upper ocean in the study area, resulting in ~3–5 cm pancake sea ice melt. Heat and salt budgets create a consistent picture of the evolving air‐ice‐ocean system during this event, in both a fixed and ice‐following (Lagrangian) reference frame. The heat lost from the upper ocean is large compared with prior observations of ocean heat flux under thick, multi‐year Arctic sea ice. In contrast to prior studies, where almost all heat lost goes into ice melt, a significant portion of the ocean heat released in this event goes directly to the atmosphere, while the remainder (~30–40%) goes into melting sea ice. The magnitude of ocean mixing during this event may have been enhanced by large surface waves, reaching nearly 5 m at the peak, which are becoming increasingly common in the autumn Arctic Ocean. The wave effects are explored by comparing the air‐ice‐ocean evolution observed at short and long fetches, and a common scaling for Langmuir turbulence. After the event, the ocean mixed layer was deeper and cooler, and autumn ice formation resumed.

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.

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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.

Turbulence from breaking surface waves at a river mouth

Zippel, S.F., J. Thomson, and G. Farquharson, "Turbulence from breaking surface waves at a river mouth," J. Phys. Oceanogr., 48, 435-453, doi:10.1175/JPO-D-17-0122.1, 2018.

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1 Feb 2018

Observations of surface waves, currents, and turbulence at the Columbia River mouth are used to investigate the source and vertical structure of turbulence in the surface boundary layer. Turbulent velocity data collected on board freely drifting Surface Wave Instrument Float with Tracking (SWIFT) buoys are corrected for platform motions to estimate turbulent kinetic energy (TKE) and TKE dissipation rates. Both of these quantities are correlated with wave steepness, which has previously been shown to determine wave breaking within the same dataset. Estimates of the turbulent length scale increase linearly with distance from the free surface, and roughness lengths estimated from velocity statistics scale with significant wave height. The vertical decay of turbulence is consistent with a balance between vertical diffusion and dissipation. Below a critical depth, a power-law scaling commonly applied in the literature works well to fit the data. Above this depth, an exponential scaling fits the data well. These results, which are in a surface-following reference frame, are reconciled with results from the literature in a fixed reference frame. A mapping between free-surface and mean-surface reference coordinates suggests 30% of the TKE is dissipated above the mean sea surface.

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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