Campus Map

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

More Info

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.

More Info

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

More Projects


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

More Videos


2000-present and while at APL-UW

Restratification at a California Current upwelling front. Part I: Observations

Johnson, L., C.M. Lee, E.A. D'Asaro, L. Thomas, and A. Shcherbina, "Restratification at a California Current upwelling front. Part I: Observations," J. Phys. Oceanogr., 50, 14-55-1472, doi:10.1175/JPO-D-19-0203.1, 2020.

More Info

6 May 2020

A coordinated survey between a subsurface Lagrangian float and a ship-towed Triaxus profiler obtained detailed measurements of a restratifying surface intensified front (above 30 m) within the California Current System. The survey began as downfront winds incited mixing in the boundary layer. As winds relaxed and mixing subsided, the system entered a different dynamical regime as the front developed an overturning circulation with large vertical velocities that tilted isopycnals and stratified the upper ocean within a day. The horizontal buoyancy gradient was 1.5 x 10-6 s-2 and associated with vorticity, divergence, and strain that approached the Coriolis frequency. Estimates of vertical velocity from the Lagrangian float reached 1.2 x 10-3 m s-1. These horizontal gradients and vertical velocities were consistent with submesoscale dynamics that are distinct from the classic quasigeostrophic framework used to describe larger-scale flows. Vertical and horizontal gradients of velocity and buoyancy in the vicinity of the float revealed that sheared currents differentially advected the horizontal buoyancy gradient to increase vertical stratification. This was supported by analyses of temperature and salinity gradients that composed the horizontal and vertical stratification. Potential vorticity was conserved during restratification at 16 m, consistent with adiabatic processes. Conversely, potential vorticity near the surface (8 m) increased, highlighting the role of friction in modulating near-surface stratification. The observed increase in stratification due to these submesoscale processes was equivalent to a heat flux of 2000 W m-2, which is an order-of-magnitude larger than the average observed surface heat flux of 100 W m-2.

Restratification at a California Current upwelling front. Part II: Dynamics

Johnson, L., C.M. Lee, E.A. D'Asaro, J.O. Wenegrat, and L.N. Thomas, "Restratification at a California Current upwelling front. Part II: Dynamics," J. Phys. Oceanogr., 50, 1473-1487, doi:10.1175/JPO-D-19-0204.1, 2020.

More Info

6 May 2020

A coordinated multiplatform campaign collected detailed measurements of a restratifying surface intensified upwelling front within the California Current System. A companion paper outlined the evolution of the front, revealing the importance of lateral advection at tilting isopycnals and increasing stratification in the surface boundary layer with a buoyancy flux equivalent to 2000 W m-2. Here, observations were compared with idealized models to explore the dynamics contributing to the stratification. A 2D model combined with a reduced form of the horizontal momentum equations highlight the importance of transient Ekman dynamics, turbulence, and thermal wind imbalance at modulating shear in the boundary layer. Specifically, unsteady frictional adjustment to the rapid decrease in wind stress created vertically sheared currents that advected horizontal gradients to increase vertical stratification on superinertial time scales. The magnitude of stratification depended on the strength of the horizontal buoyancy gradient. This enhanced stratification due to horizontal advection inhibited nighttime mixing that would have otherwise eroded stratification from the diurnal warm layer. This underscores the importance of near-surface lateral restratification for the upper ocean buoyancy budget on diel time scales.

The evolution of a shallow front in the Arctic marginal ice zone

Brenner, S., L. Rainville, J. Thomson, and C. Lee, "The evolution of a shallow front in the Arctic marginal ice zone," Elem. Sci. Anth., 8, doi:10.1525/elementa.413, 2020.

More Info

4 May 2020

The high degree of heterogeneity in the ice–ocean–atmosphere system in marginal ice zones leads to a complex set of dynamics which control fluxes of heat and buoyancy in the upper ocean. Strong fronts may occur near the ice edge between the warmer waters of the ice-free regions and the cold, fresh waters near and under the ice. This study presents observations of a well-defined density front located along the ice edge in the Beaufort Sea. The evolution of the front over a ~3-day survey period is captured by multiple cross-front sections measured using an underway conductivity–temperature–depth system, with simultaneous measurements of atmospheric forcing. Synthetic aperture radar images bookending this period show that the ice edge itself underwent concurrent evolution. Prior to the survey, the ice edge was compact and well defined while after the survey it was diffuse and filamented with coherent vortical structures. This transformation might be indicative of the development an active ocean eddy field in the upper ocean mixed layer. Over the course of hours, increasing wind stress is correlated with changes to the lateral buoyancy gradient and frontogenesis. Frontal dynamics appear to vary from typical open-ocean fronts (e.g., here the frontogenesis is linked to an "up-front" wind stress). Convective and shear-driven mixing appear to be unable to describe deepening at the heel of the front. While there was no measurable spatial variation in wind speed, we hypothesize that spatial heterogeneity in the total surface stress input, resulting from varying ice conditions across the marginal ice zone, may be a driver of the observed behaviour.

More Publications

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

More News Items


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