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Craig Lee

Senior Principal Oceanographer

Professor, Oceanography





Research Interests

Upper Ocean Dynamics, Coastal Ocean Processes, Internal Waves, Fronts, Dynamics and Biological Process Interactions


Dr. Lee is a physical oceanographer specializing in observations and instrument development. His primary scientific interests include: (1) upper ocean dynamics, especially mesoscale and submesocale fronts and eddies, (2) interactions between biology, biogeochemistry and ocean physics and (3) high-latitude oceanography.

With partner Dr. Jason Gobat, Lee founded and leads a team of scientists and technologists that pursues a wide range of oceanographic field programs, including intensive studies of the Kuroshio Current, coupled physical–biogeochemical studies such as the recent patch-scale investigation of the North Atlantic spring phytoplankton bloom and studies aimed at quantifying and understanding Arctic change. An important component of this work involves identifying advances that could be achieved through novel measurements and developing new instruments to meet these needs.

The team's accomplishments include autonomous gliders capable of extended operation in ice-covered waters, high-performance towed vehicles and light-weight, inexpensive mooring technologies. The team also pursues K-12 educational outreach and routinely employs undergraduate research assistants. Within the community, Lee provides leadership through service on the science steering committees for several large research programs and by serving on and chairing advisory panels for U.S. Arctic efforts. Lee supports and advises masters and doctoral students and teaches graduate level courses on observations of ocean circulation and instruments, methods and experimental design.

Department Affiliation

Ocean Physics


B.S. Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, University of California, Berkeley, 1987

Ph.D. Physical Oceanography, University of Washington, 1995


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.

The Submesoscale Cascade in the South China Sea

This research program is investigating the evolution of submesoscale eddies and filaments in the Kuroshio-influenced region off the southwest coast of Taiwan.

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26 Aug 2015

Science questions:
1. What role does the Kuroshio play in generating mesoscale and submesoscale variability modeled/observed off the SW coast of Taiwan?
2. How does this vary with atmospheric forcing?
3. How do these features evolve in response to wintertime (strong) atmospheric forcing?
4. What role do these dynamics play in driving water mass evolution and interior stratification in the South China Sea?
5. What role do these dynamics/features have on the transition of water masses from northern SCS water into the Kuroshio branch water/current and local flow patterns?

Salinity Processes in the Upper Ocean Regional Study — SPURS

The NASA SPURS research effort is actively addressing the essential role of the ocean in the global water cycle by measuring salinity and accumulating other data to improve our basic understanding of the ocean's water cycle and its ties to climate.

15 Apr 2015

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Eddies Drive Particulate Carbon Deep in the Ocean During the North Atlantic Spring Bloom

The swirling eddies that create patches of stratification to hold phytoplankton near the sunlit surface during the North Atlantic spring bloom, also inject the floating organic carbon particles deep into the ocean. The finding, reported in Science, has important implications for the ocean's role in the carbon cycle on Earth: phytoplankton use carbon dioxide absorbed by the ocean from the atmosphere during the bloom and the resulting organic carbon near the sea surface is sequestered in the deep ocean.

27 Mar 2015

Seaglider: Autonomous Undersea Vehicle

APL-UW scientists continually expand Seaglider's hardware/software systems, and sensor packages. First developed for oceanographic research, it is also used by the U.S. Navy to detect and monitor marine mammals. Recently, the manufacture and marketing of Seaglider has been licensed to Kongsberg Underwater Technology, Inc., which will push the vehicle to emerging markets in offshore environmental monitoring for the oil and gas industry.

14 Aug 2013

Marginal Ice Zone (MIZ) Program

An integrated program of observations and numerical simulations will focus on understanding ice–ocean–atmosphere dynamics in and around the MIZ, with particular emphasis on quantifying changes associated with decreasing ice cover. The MIZ measurement program will employ a novel mix of autonomous technologies (ice-based instrumentation, floats, drifters, and gliders) to characterize the processes that govern Beaufort Sea MIZ evolution from initial breakup and MIZ formation though the course of the summertime sea ice retreat.

22 Mar 2013

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2000-present and while at APL-UW

Interaction of superinertial waves with submesoscale cyclonic filaments in the North Wall of the Gulf Stream

Whitt, D.B., L.N. Thomas, J.M. Klymak, C.M. Lee, and E.A. D'Asaro, "Interaction of superinertial waves with submesoscale cyclonic filaments in the North Wall of the Gulf Stream," J. Phys. Oceanogr., 48, 81-99, doi:10.1175/JPO-D-17-0079.1, 2018.

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1 Jan 2018

High-resolution, nearly Lagrangian observations of velocity and density made in the North Wall of the Gulf Stream reveal banded shear structures characteristic of near-inertial waves (NIWs). Here, the current follows submesoscale dynamics, with Rossby and Richardson numbers near one, and the vertical vorticity is positive. This allows for a unique analysis of the interaction of NIWs with a submesoscale current dominated by cyclonic as opposed to anticyclonic vorticity. Rotary spectra reveal that the vertical shear vector rotates primarily clockwise with depth and with time at frequencies near and above the local Coriolis frequency f. At some depths, more than half of the measured shear variance is explained by clockwise rotary motions with frequencies between f and 1.7f. The dominant superinertial frequencies are consistent with those inferred from a dispersion relation for NIWs in submesoscale currents that depends on the observed aspect ratio of the wave shear as well as the vertical vorticity, baroclinicity, and stratification of the balanced flow. These observations motivate a ray tracing calculation of superinertial wave propagation in the North Wall, where multiple filaments of strong cyclonic vorticity strongly modify wave propagation. The calculation shows that the minimum permissible frequency for inertia–gravity waves is mostly greater than the Coriolis frequency, and superinertial waves can be trapped and amplified at slantwise critical layers between cyclonic vortex filaments, providing a new plausible explanation for why the observed shear variance is dominated by superinertial waves.

An undercurrent off the east coast of Sri Lanka

Anutaliya, A., U. Send, J.L. McClean, J. Sprintall, L. Rainville, C.M. Lee, S.U.P. Jinadasa, A.J. Wallcraft, and E.J. Metzger, "An undercurrent off the east coast of Sri Lanka," Ocean Sci., 13, 1035-1044, doi:10.5194/os-13-1035-2017, 2017.

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7 Dec 2017

The existence of a seasonally varying undercurrent along 8°N off the east coast of Sri Lanka is inferred from shipboard hydrography, Argo floats, glider measurements, and two ocean general circulation model simulations. Together, they reveal an undercurrent below 100–200 m flowing in the opposite direction to the surface current, which is most pronounced during boreal spring and summer and switches direction between these two seasons. The volume transport of the undercurrent (200–1000 m layer) can be more than 10 Sv in either direction, exceeding the transport of 1–6 Sv carried by the surface current (0–200 m layer). The undercurrent transports relatively fresher water southward during spring, while it advects more saline water northward along the east coast of Sri Lanka during summer. Although the undercurrent is potentially a pathway of salt exchange between the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, the observations and the ocean general circulation models suggest that the salinity contrast between seasons and between the boundary current and interior is less than 0.09 in the subsurface layer, suggesting a small salt transport by the undercurrent of less than 4% of the salinity deficit in the Bay of Bengal.

Cascading off the West Greenland Shelf: A numerical perspective

Marson, J.M., P.G. Myers, X. Hu, B. Petrie, K. Azetsu-Scott, and C.M. Lee, "Cascading off the West Greenland Shelf: A numerical perspective," J. Geophys. Res., 122, 5316-5328, doi:10.1002/2017JC012801, 2017.

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1 Jul 2017

Cascading of dense water from the shelf to deeper layers of the adjacent ocean basin has been observed in several locations around the world. The West Greenland Shelf (WGS), however, is a region where this process has never been documented. In this study, we use a numerical model with a 1/4° resolution to determine (i) if cascading could happen from the WGS; (ii) where and when it could take place; (iii) the forcings that induce or halt this process; and (iv) the path of the dense plume. Results show cascading happening off the WGS at Davis Strait. Dense waters form there due to brine rejection and slide down the slope during spring. Once the dense plume leaves the shelf, it gradually mixes with waters of similar density and moves northward into Baffin Bay. Our simulation showed events happening between 2003–2006 and during 2014; but no plume was observed in the simulation between 2007 and 2013. We suggest that the reason why cascading was halted in this period is related to: the increased freshwater transport from the Arctic Ocean through Fram Strait; the additional sea ice melting in the region; and the reduced presence of Irminger Water at Davis Strait during fall/early winter. Although observations at Davis Strait show that our simulation usually overestimates the seasonal range of temperature and salinity, they agree with the overall variability captured by the model. This suggests that cascades have the potential to develop on the WGS, albeit less dense than the ones estimated by the simulation.

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In The News

Underwater robots to measure Antarctica climate threat

CNN, Lynda Kinkade and Shelby Rose

Scientists with the University of Washington in conjunction with Paul G. Allen Philanthropies are sending robots to Antarctica for as long as a year in what will be the longest mission ever undertaken in the region. Seagliders and profiling floats will focus on Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica, the continent's fastest-melting ice sheet. The aim: to gain more extensive data about the rate of ice loss and thus more accurately predict future sea level rise.

27 Jan 2018

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

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Ogive Fairing, Cover Hatch, and Wing Drawings

Record of Invention Number: 4149-Reg-0009

Jason Gobat, Adam Huxtable, Craig Lee, Charles Eriksen, Jim Osse


25 Mar 2010

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