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Eric D'Asaro

Senior Principal Oceanographer

Professor, Oceanography





Research Interests

Physical oceanography, internal waves, air-sea interaction, upper ocean dynamics, Arctic oceanography, ocean instrumentation


Dr. D'Asaro's research spans a wide number of environments from upper ocean mixed layers to nearshore coastal fronts to fjords to deep convection. Starting from a core interest in turbulence and internaI waves, it has expanded to include new aspects of small-scale oceanography, including submesoscale processes, and the role of all of these mixing processes in controlling biochemical processes in the ocean, including the distribution and fluxes of ocean gases exchange and biological productivity. By measuring big signals, like hurricanes or major blooms, it is easier to unravel the underlying processes because the signal to noise is high.

For the past 30 years, D'Asaro’s experimental work has focused on exploiting the unique capabilities of "Lagrangian Floats," a class of instruments that try to accurately follow the three dimensional motion of water parcels particularly in regions of strong mixing. This turns out to be a novel but effective way to measure turbulence in regions of strong mixing. Lagrangian techniques have not been used very much in measuring mixing and turbulence. Accordingly one of the more exciting aspects of this work is learning how to use Lagrangian floats in the ocean. This understanding draws both upon basic ideas in fluid mechanics and upon understanding of mixing in the ocean. It strongly influences float design, use, and the oceanographic problems studied. The work thus spans a wide range of topics, from fluid mechanics to oceanography to engineering. That makes it particularly fun and interesting.

Chemical species in the ocean and many microbial plants and animals drift with the ocean currents. Floats mimic this behavior, making them excellent platforms for studying aspects of ocean chemistry and biology. There is an ongoing revolution in these fields as electronic sensors become capable of making measurements formerly possible only in the laboratory. Floats equipped with such sensors are potentially very powerful tools. Dr. D'Asaro works to realize this potential, which is especially challenging and interesting as he collaborates with ocean biologists and chemists to design and operate multidisciplinary floats.

Department Affiliation

Ocean Physics


B.A. Physics, Harvard University, 1976

M.S. Applied Physics, Harvard University, 1976

Ph.D. Oceanography, MIT/WHOI, 1980


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

Air–Sea Momentum Flux in Tropical Cyclones

The intensity of a tropical cyclone is influenced by two competing physical processes at the air–sea interface. It strengthens by drawing thermal energy from the underlying warm ocean but weakens due to the drag of rough ocean surface. These processes change dramatically as the wind speed increases above 30 m/s.

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30 Mar 2018

The project is driven by the following science questions: (1) How important are equilibrium-range waves in controlling the air-sea momentum flux in tropical cyclones? We hypothesize that for wind speeds higher than 30 m/s the stress on the ocean surface is larger than the equilibrium-range wave breaking stress. (2) How does the wave breaking rate vary with wind speed and the complex surface wave field? At moderate wind speeds the wave breaking rate increases with increasing speed. Does this continue at extreme high winds? (3) Can we detect acoustic signatures of sea spray at high winds? Measurements of sea spray in tropical cyclones are very rare. We will seek for the acoustic signatures of spray droplets impacting the ocean surface. (4) What are the processes controlling the air-sea momentum flux?

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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EXPORTS: Export Processes in the Ocean from RemoTe Sensing

The EXPORTS mission is to quantify how much of the atmospheric carbon dioxide fixed during primary production near the ocean surface is pumped to the deep twilight zone by biological processes, where it can be sequestered for months to millennia.

An integrated observation strategy leverages the precise, intense measurements made on ships, the persistent subsurface data collected by swimming and floating robots, and the global surface views provided by satellites.

18 Sep 2018

Lagrangian Submesoscale Experiment — LASER

A science team led by Eric D'Asaro conducted a unique mission to deploy over 1,000 ocean drifters in a small area of the Gulf of Mexico. The real-time data collected from the biodegradable drifters recalibrated understanding of ocean currents.

22 Jan 2018

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

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2000-present and while at APL-UW

Eddy tracking from in situ and satellite observations

Erickson, Z.K., E. Fields, L. Johnson, A.F. Thompson, L.A. Dove, E. D'Asaro, and D.A. Siegel, "Eddy tracking from in situ and satellite observations," J. Geophys. Res., 128, doi:10.1029/2023JC019701, 2023.

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1 Aug 2023

Mesoscale eddies are a dominant source of spatial variability in the surface ocean and play a major role in the biological marine carbon cycle. Satellite altimetry is often used to locate and track eddies, but this approach is rarely validated against in situ observations. Here we compare measurements of a small (under 25 km radius) mode water anticyclonic eddy over the Porcupine Abyssal Plain in the northeastern Atlantic Ocean using CTD and Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler (ADCP) measurements from three ships, two gliders, two profiling floats, and one Lagrangian float with those derived from sea level anomaly (SLA). In situ estimates of the eddy center were estimated from maps of the thickness of its central isopycnal layer, from ADCP velocities at a reference depth, and from the trajectory of the Lagrangian float. These were compared to three methods using altimetric SLA: one based on maximizing geostrophic rotation, one based on a constant SLA contour, and one which maximizes geostrophic velocity speed along the eddy boundary. All algorithms were used to select CTD profiles that were within the eddy. The in-situ metrics agreed to 97%. The altimetry metrics showed only a small loss of accuracy, giving >90% agreement with the in situ results. This suggests that current satellite altimetry is adequate for understanding the spatial representation of even relatively small mesoscale eddies.

Detection of rain in tropical cyclones by underwater ambient sound

Zhao, Z., and E.A. D'Asaro, "Detection of rain in tropical cyclones by underwater ambient sound," J. Atmos. Ocean. Technol., EOR, doi:10.1175/JTECH-D-22-0078.1, 2023.

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29 Jun 2023

Rain in tropical cyclones is studied using eight time series of underwater ambient sound at 40 Hz–50 kHz with wind speeds up to 45ms−1 beneath three tropical cyclones. At tropical cyclone wind speeds, rain- and wind-generated sound levels are comparable, so that rain cannot be detected by sound level alone. A rain detection algorithm based on the variations of 5–30 kHz sound levels with periods longer than 20 seconds and shorter than 30 minutes is proposed. Faster fluctuations (<20 s) are primarily due to wave breaking, and slower ones (>30 min) due to overall wind variations. Higher frequency sound (>30 kHz) is strongly attenuated by bubble clouds. This approach is supported by observations that, for wind speeds <40 m s-1, the variation in sound level is much larger than that expected from observed wind variations, and roughly comparable with that expected from rain variations. The hydrophone results are consistent with rain estimates by the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) satellite and with Stepped-Frequency Microwave Radiometer (SFMR) and radar estimates by surveillance flights. The observations indicate that the rain-generated sound fluctuations have broadband acoustic spectra centered around 10 kHz. Acoustically detected rain events usually last for a few minutes. The data used in this study are insufficient to produce useful estimation of rain rate from ambient sound, due to limited quantity and accuracy of the validation data. The frequency dependence of sound variations suggests that quantitative rainfall algorithms from ambient sound may be developed using multiple sound frequencies.

Autonomous observations of biogenic N2 in the Eastern Tropical North Pacific using profiling floats equipped with gas tension devices

McNeil, C.L., E.A. D'Asaro, M.A. Altabet, R.C. Hamme, and E. Garcia-Robledo, "Autonomous observations of biogenic N2 in the Eastern Tropical North Pacific using profiling floats equipped with gas tension devices," Front. Mar. Sci., 10, doi:10.3389/fmars.2023.1134851, 2023.

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12 Jun 2023

Oxygen Deficient Zones (ODZs) of the world's oceans represent a relatively small fraction of the ocean by volume (<0.05% for suboxic and <5% for hypoxic) yet are receiving increased attention by experimentalists and modelers due to their importance in ocean nutrient cycling and predicted susceptibility to expansion and/or contraction forced by global warming. Conventional methods to study these biogeochemically important regions of the ocean have relied on well-developed but still relatively high cost and labor-intensive shipboard methods that include mass-spectrometric analysis of nitrogen-to-argon ratios (N2/Ar) and nutrient stoichiometry (relative abundance of nitrate, nitrite, and phosphate). Experimental studies of denitrification rates and processes typically involve either in-situ or in-vitro incubations using isotopically labeled nutrients. Over the last several years we have been developing a Gas Tension Device (GTD) to study ODZ denitrification including deployment in the largest ODZ, the Eastern Tropical North Pacific (ETNP). The GTD measures total dissolved gas pressure from which dissolved N2 concentration is calculated. Data from two cruises passing through the core of the ETNP near 17°N in late 2020 and 2021 are presented, with additional comparisons at 12°N for GTDs mounted on a rosette/CTD as well as modified profiling Argo-style floats. Gas tension was measured on the float with an accuracy of < 0.1% and relatively low precision (< 0.12%) when shallow (P< 200 dbar) and high precision (< 0.03%) when deep (P > 300 dbar). We discriminate biologically produced N2 (i.e., denitrification) from N2 in excess of saturation due to physical processes (e.g., mixing) using a new tracer – 'preformed excess-N2'. We used inert dissolved argon (Ar) to help test the assumption that preformed excess-N2 is indeed conservative. We used the shipboard measurements to quantify preformed excess-N2 by cross-calibrating the gas tension method to the nutrient-deficit method. At 17°N preformed excess-N2 decreased from approximately 28 to 12 μmol/kg over σ0 = 24–27 kg/m3 with a resulting precision of ±1 μmol N2/kg; at 12°N values were similar except in the potential density range of 25.7< σ0< 26.3 where they were lower by 1 μmol N2/kg due likely to being composed of different source waters. We then applied these results to gas tension and O2 (< 3 μmol O2/kg) profiles measured by the nearby float to obtain the first autonomous biogenic N2 profile in the open ocean with an RMSE of ± 0.78 μM N2, or ± 19%. We also assessed the potential of the method to measure denitrification rates directly from the accumulation of biogenic N2 during the float drifts between profiling. The results suggest biogenic N2 rates of ±20 nM N2/day could be detected over >>16 days (positive rates would indicate denitrification processes whereas negative rates would indicate predominantly dilution by mixing). These new observations demonstrate the potential of the gas tension method to determine biogenic N2 accurately and precisely in future studies of ODZs.

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In The News

NASA, NSF expedition to study ocean carbon embarks in August from Seattle

UW News, Hannah Hickey

Dozens of scientists, as well as underwater drones and other high-tech ocean instruments, will set sail from Seattle in mid-August. Funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation, the team will study the life and death of the small organisms that play a critical role in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and in the ocean’s carbon cycle.

21 Jun 2018

Scientists watch ocean plastic hotspots form in real time

NewsDeeply, Erica Cirino

Researchers tracked hundreds of buoys deployed in the Gulf of Mexico. Not only did the buoys not spread out – many concentrated into an area the size of a football stadium. The findings may help scientists pinpoint areas for plastic or oil-spill cleanup.

6 Feb 2018

Temporary 'bathtub drains' in the ocean concentrate flotsam

UW News, Hannah Hickey

An experiment featuring the largest flotilla of sensors ever deployed in a single area provides new insights into how marine debris, or flotsam, moves on the surface of the ocean.

18 Jan 2018

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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