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Melissa Moulton

Research Scientist/Engineer Senior

Affiliate Assistant Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering





Research Interests

Coastal and Nearshore Processes, Environmental Fluid Mechanics, Remote Sensing, Beach Hazard Prediction


Dr. Moulton's recent research includes studying strong, offshore-directed jets known as rip currents which can carry pollutants, larvae, and heat from the shoreline to the inner shelf and are hazardous to swimmers. Her work seeks to improve understanding and prediction of rip currents using field observations and numerical simulations. (http://www.whoi.edu/oceanus/feature/the-riddle-of-rip-currents) In addition, Dr. Moulton is investigating inner shelf processes using airborne remote sensing, drifters, and numerical models.


B.A. Physics, Amherst College, 2009

Ph.D. Physical Oceanography, MIT/WHOI Joint Program, 2016


2000-present and while at APL-UW

A new version of the SWIFT platform for waves, currents, and turbulence in the ocean surface layer

Thomson, J., M. Moulton, A. de Klerk, J. Talbert, M. Guerra, S. Kastner, M. Smith, M. Schwendeman, S. Zippel, and S. Nylund, "A new version of the SWIFT platform for waves, currents, and turbulence in the ocean surface layer," Proc., IEEE/OES 12th Currents, Waves, Turbulence Measurement and Applications Workshop, 10-13 March, San Diego, CA (IEEE, 2019).

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10 Mar 2019

The Surface Wave Instrument Float with Tracking (SWIFT) is a freely drifting platform for measurements of waves, currents, and turbulence in the ocean surface layer. This platform
has been used globally to study wave breaking, wave-current interactions, and waves in ice. A new version (v4) of the buoy has recently been developed and demonstrated in the Office of
Naval Research “Langmuir Circulations” field campaign along the California coast (2017). The new version is built around a 5-beam Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler (Nortek Signature 1000) with a multi-pulse coherent mode for high-resolution turbulence measurements. The new Doppler profiler enables estimates of the turbulent dissipation rate down to 3.5 m below waves, compared with 0.5 m in the previous version, and can measure a much larger range of turbulence levels than the previous version. The new version also uses a broadband Doppler mode to profile the mean currents down to 20 m. Mean Eulerian velocity profiles are estimated from the wave-averaged profiler velocities by applying a wave-following bias correction that scales with the Stokes drift and has twice the vertical decay scale. Finally, the new version supports real-time telemetry of raw sea surface elevations for reconstruction of individual waves by processing a coherent array of multiple SWIFTs, with applications for short-range wave-by-wave forecasting. These combined improvements to the platform are intended to advance understanding of wave processes and applications in the ocean surface layer.

Extremely low frequency (0.1 to 1.0 mHz) surf zone currents

Elgar, S., B. Raubenheimer, D.B. Clark, and M. Moulton, "Extremely low frequency (0.1 to 1.0 mHz) surf zone currents," Geophys. Res. Lett., 46, 1531-1536, doi:10.1029/2018GL081106, 2019.

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2 Jan 2019

Low‐frequency surf zone eddies disperse material between the shoreline and the continental shelf, and velocity fluctuations with frequencies as low as a few mHz have been observed previously on several beaches. Here spectral estimates of surf zone currents are extended to an order of magnitude lower frequency, resolving an extremely low frequency peak of approximately 0.5 mHz that is observed for a range of beaches and wave conditions. The magnitude of the 0.5‐mHz peak increases with increasing wave energy and with spatial inhomogeneity of bathymetry or currents. The 0.5‐mHz peak may indicate the frequency for which nonlinear energy transfers from higher‐frequency, smaller‐scale motions are balanced by dissipative processes and thus may be the low‐frequency limit of the hypothesized 2‐D cascade of energy from breaking waves to lower frequency motions.

Comparison of rip current hazard likelihood forecasts with observed rip current speeds

Moulton, M., G. Dusek, S. Elgar, and B. Raubenheimer, "Comparison of rip current hazard likelihood forecasts with observed rip current speeds," Wea. Forecasting, 32, 1659-1666, doi:10.1175/WAF-D-17-0076.1, 2017.

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1 Aug 2017

Although rip currents are a major hazard for beachgoers, the relationship between the danger to swimmers and the physical properties of rip current circulation is not well understood. Here, the relationship between statistical model estimates of hazardous rip current likelihood and in situ velocity observations is assessed. The statistical model is part of a forecasting system that is being made operational by the National Weather Service to predict rip current hazard likelihood as a function of wave conditions and water level. The temporal variability of rip current speeds (offshore-directed currents) observed on an energetic sandy beach is correlated with the hindcasted hazard likelihood for a wide range of conditions. High likelihoods and rip current speeds occurred for low water levels, nearly shore-normal wave angles, and moderate or larger wave heights. The relationship between modeled hazard likelihood and the frequency with which rip current speeds exceeded a threshold was assessed for a range of threshold speeds. The frequency of occurrence of high (threshold exceeding) rip current speeds is consistent with the modeled probability of hazard, with a maximum Brier skill score of 0.65 for a threshold speed of 0.23 m s-1, and skill scores greater than 0.60 for threshold speeds between 0.15 and 0.30 m s-1. The results suggest that rip current speed may be an effective proxy for hazard level and that speeds greater than ~0.2 m s-1 may be hazardous to swimmers.

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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