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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

Pancake sea ice kinematics and dynamics using shipboard stereo video

Smith, M., and J. Thomson, "Pancake sea ice kinematics and dynamics using shipboard stereo video," Ann. Glaciol., EOR, doi:10.1017/aog.2019.35, 2019.

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18 Nov 2019

In the marginal ice zone, surface waves drive motion of sea ice floes. The motion of floes relative to each other can cause periodic collisions, and drives the formation of pancake sea ice. Additionally, the motion of floes relative to the water results in turbulence generation at the interface between the ice and ocean below. These are important processes for the formation and growth of pancakes, and likely contribute to wave energy loss. Models and laboratory studies have been used to describe these motions, but there have been no in situ observations of relative ice velocities in a natural wave field. Here, we use shipboard stereo video to measure wave motion and relative motion of pancake floes simultaneously. The relative velocities of pancake floes are typically small compared to wave orbital motion (i.e. floes mostly follow the wave orbits). We find that relative velocities are well-captured by existing phase-resolved models, and are only somewhat over-estimated by using bulk wave parameters. Under the conditions observed, estimates of wave energy loss from ice–ocean turbulence are much larger than from pancake collisions. Increased relative pancake floe velocities in steeper wave fields may then result in more wave attenuation by increasing ice–ocean shear.

Impact of swell on the wind-sea and resulting modulation of stress

Vincent, C.L., J. Thomson, H.C. Graber, and C.O. Collins III, "Impact of swell on the wind-sea and resulting modulation of stress," Prog. Oceanogr., 178, 102164, doi:10.1016/j.pocean.2019.102164, 2019.

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1 Nov 2019


• The presence of swell in the sea state is shown to modulate the energy in the wind sea spectral tail.

• The f-4 and f-5 power laws used to describe the tail of the wind sea spectrum when swell is not present, are extended to the spectra including swell. This requires including swell steepness in the formulation of the power law coefficients and into the equation for the transition frequency between the Equilibrium and Saturation ranges.

• The spectra of large swell with very low winds also display f-4 and f-5 power laws. The power law coefficients however are a function of swell steepness, not wind speed.

• Direction of the waves in the high frequency range of the spectrum is that of the wind, no matter the swell size, steepness or direction.

• The reformulation of the equations for the spectral tail to include swell allows development of a simple equation for stress encompassing the swell effect.

Wave groups observed in pancake sea ice

Thomson, J., J. Gemmrich, W.E. Rogers, C.O. Collins, and F. Ardhuin, "Wave groups observed in pancake sea ice," J. Geophys. Res., EOR, doi:10.1029/2019JC015354, 2019.

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16 Oct 2019

Ocean surface waves propagating through sea ice are scattered and dissipated. The net attenuation occurs preferentially at the higher frequencies, and thus the spectral bandwidth of a given wave field is reduced, relative to open water. The reduction in bandwidth is associated with an increase in the groupiness of the wave field. Using SWIFT buoy data from the 2015 Arctic Sea State experiment, bandwidth is compared between pancake ice and open water conditions, and the linkage to group envelopes is explored. The enhancement of wave groups in ice is consistent with the simple linear mechanism of superposition of waves with narrowing spectral bandwidth. This is confirmed using synthetic data. Nonlinear mechanisms, which have been shown as significant in other ice types, are not found to be important in this data set.

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In The News

UW study finds disturbing climate change evidence in Arctic Ocean

KING5 News, Glenn Farley

A joint study between the University of Washington and University of Alaska has uncovered the presence of 'pancake ice' and tall waves in the Arctic Ocean. Photo: John Guillotte

21 Jan 2020

Warm ocean water delays sea ice for Alaska towns, wildlife

Associated Press, Dan Joling

In the new reality of the U.S. Arctic, open water is the November norm for the Chukchi. Instead of thick, years-old ice, researchers are studying waves and how they may pummel the northern Alaska coastline.

19 Nov 2019

Fall storms, coastal erosion focus of northern Alaska research cruise

UW News, Hannah Hickey

A University of Washington team is leaving to study how fall storms, dwindling sea ice and vulnerable coastlines might combine in a changing Arctic. The project leaves Thursday, Nov. 7, from Nome, Alaska in the Bering Strait to spend four weeks gathering data during the fall freeze-up season.

5 Nov 2019

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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