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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

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.

31 Oct 2016

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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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

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

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2000-present and while at APL-UW

Characterization of mixing at the edge of a Kuroshio intrusion into the South China Sea: Analysis of thermal variance diffusivity measurements

Sanchez-Rios, A., R.K. Shearman, C.M. Lee, H.L. Simmons, L. St. Laurent, A.J. Lucas, T. Ijichi, and S. Jan, "Characterization of mixing at the edge of a Kuroshio intrusion into the South China Sea: Analysis of thermal variance diffusivity measurements," J. Phys. Oceanogr., 54, 1121-1142, doi:10.1175/JPO-D-23-0007.1, 2024.

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15 Jan 2024

The Kuroshio occasionally carries warm and salty North Pacific Water into fresher waters of the South China Sea, forming a front with a complex temperature-salinity (T-S) structure to the west of the Luzon Strait. In this study, we examine the T-S interleavings formed by alternating layers of North Pacific water with South China Sea water in a front formed during the winter monsoon season of 2014. Using observations from a glider array following a free-floating wave-powered vertical profiling float to calculate the fine-scale parameters Turner angle, Tu, and Richardson number, Ri, we identified areas favorable to double diffusion convection and shear instability observed in a T-S interleaving. We evaluated the contribution of double diffusion convection and shear instabilities to the thermal variance diffusivity, X, using microstructure data and compared it with previous parameterization schemes based on fine-scale properties. We discover that turbulent mixing is not accurately parameterized when both Tu and Ri are within critical ranges (Tu > 60, Ri < 1/4). In particular, X associated with salt finger processes was an order of magnitude higher (6.7 x 10-7 K2 s-1) than in regions where only velocity shear was likely to drive mixing (8.7 x 10-8 K2 s-1).

Assessment of oceanographic conditions during the North Atlantic EXport Processes in the Ocean from RemoTe Sensing (EXPORTS) field campaign

Johnson, L. and 17 others including C.M. Lee, "Assessment of oceanographic conditions during the North Atlantic EXport Processes in the Ocean from RemoTe Sensing (EXPORTS) field campaign," Prog. Oceanogr., 220, doi:10.1016/j.pocean.2023.103170, 2024

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1 Jan 2024

This manuscript presents an overview of NASA's EXport Processes in the Ocean from Remote Sensing 2021 Field Campaign in the North Atlantic (EXPORTS NA) and provides quantitative and dynamical descriptions of the physical processes modulating water transformations during the study. A major programmatic goal was to conduct the sampling in a Lagrangian mode so that ocean ecological and biogeochemical changes can be observed independent from physical advective processes. To accomplish this goal, EXPORTS NA conducted a multi-ship, multi-asset field sampling program within a retentive, anticyclonic mode water eddy. Beneath depths of ~ 100 m, Lagrangian sampling assets remained within the eddy core waters (ECWs) throughout the experiment, demonstrating that the ECWs within the mode water eddy were retentive. However, strong westerly winds from four storm events deepened the mixed layer (ML) of the surface core waters (SCWs) above the eddy’s mode water core by 25–40 m and exchanged some of the SCWs with surface waters outside of the eddy via Ekman transport. Estimates of flushing times ranged from 5 to 8 days, with surface exchange fractions ranging from 20 to 75 % and were consistent with particle tracking advected by combined geostrophic and Ekman velocities. The relative contributions of horizontal and vertical advection on changes in ECW tracers depended on the horizontal and vertical gradients of that tracer. For example, horizontal advection played a large role in ECW salinity fluxes, while vertical entrainment played a larger role in the fluxes of nutrients into SCW ML. Each storm injected nutrients and low oxygen waters into the ML, after which the surface ocean ecosystem responded by reducing nutrient concentrations and increasing %O2 saturation levels. Overall, ECW values of chlorophyll and POC were the largest at the onset of the field program and decreased throughout the campaign. The analysis presented provides a physical oceanographic context for the many measurements made during the EXPORTS NA field campaign while illustrating the many challenges of conducting a production-flux experiment, even in a Lagrangian frame, and the inherent uncertainties of interpreting biological carbon pump observations that were collected in a Eulerian frame of reference.

Cruise Report: R/V Armstrong 27 September – 21 October 2022

Lee, C., and 20 others including E. Boget and C. Archer, "Cruise Report: R/V Armstrong 27 September – 21 October 2022," Technical Report, APL-UW TR 2305, Applied Physics Laboratory, University of Washington, Seattle, September 2023, 84 pp.

9 Oct 2023

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In The News

During a pandemic, is oceangoing research safe?

Eos, Jenessa Duncombe

Postponing cruises. Cancelling cruises. UNOLS has extended its halt on vessel operations until July. UNOLS Chair Craig Lee explains why onboard mitigation of COVID-19 is "difficult to impossible."

1 Apr 2020

Coronavirus is wreaking havoc on scientific field work

The Washington Post, Maddie Stone

As the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to upend life around the world, scientific research is beginning to suffer. Over the past several weeks, major Earth science field campaigns, some years in the making, have been called off or postponed indefinitely. Craig Lee, APL-UW Senior Principal Oceanographer and UNOLS Council Chair, comments on impacts to at-sea research.

27 Mar 2020

These ocean robots spent a year collecting data under Antarctic ice

Geek.com, Genevieve Scarano

Studying Antarctic areas can be tough for scientists, but ocean robots are here to help: A group of autonomous subs have successfully collected data beneath the Dotson Ice Shelf in West Antarctica.

24 Jan 2019

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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