D. Randolph Watts


Research Professor of Oceanography


Physical oceanography


Climate change and ocean circulation, Eddies, Instrumentation, Large-scale ocean dynamics, Observational physical oceanography, Ocean circulation, Ocean dynamics, Oceanic fronts


For Dr. D. Randolph Watts the road to becoming a professor of oceanography had a few meanderings just like the deep ocean currents he has been studying.

Watts started out getting his bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of California at Riverside but even then he says he held an interest in oceanography.

For his doctorate he studied low temperature physics at Cornell and one year he had the opportunity to spend a summer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute working on geophysical dynamics. There he met someone who had postdoc money for work at Yale and while there he met Dr. Thomas Rossby (now GSO professor emeritus) who also had postdoc funding. A year and a half later URI was advertising an opening and after giving a seminar at GSO Watts was invited to join the school.

“It was a big transition to go from low temperature physics and try to learn a lot of the background in oceanography,” he says, recalling he was assigned to teach a course in descriptive physical oceanography. On the first day of class, he says he told the graduate students “We are going to learn this together.”

He says he gradually acquired the materials and oceanographic understanding and what helped him a lot was to switch teaching courses with other faculty members every few years.

Studying ocean currents is a big part of his research and at first he concentrated in the nearest and most notable one—the Gulf Stream. The instrumentation used at the time was not as sophisticated as those available today—“You put something in the water and hoped to get it back.” He was invited to write an overview chapter on the Gulf Stream, which led to higher visibility in scientific circles, and eventually he was co-leader on a big Gulf Stream project sponsored by the Navy and NSF.

The overall goal of that program which involved a host of collaborators “was to understand and hopefully to predict how the Gulf Stream meanders.” The project involved new techniques in mapping, not only the surface currents but also those deep in the water column.

The project, he says, was a “learning platform” that led him and collaborators to study major meandering currents elsewhere on Earth using devices like the inverted echo sounder and a bottom pressure gauge. Currents off Japan, Australia and in the Drake Passage off the southern tip of South America have been the targets of various projects. The latter he finds most interesting because the Drake Current actually has influence around the entire globe and passes by a glacier that is calving a huge amount of ice into the sea.

He is also involved in the so-called “Loop Current” in the Gulf of Mexico. This current has drawn a lot of interest ever since Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill.

Watts switched from the GSO faculty to marine research scientist two and a half years ago and that has given him more flexibility on projects now that he has no teaching load. “I liked teaching but I wanted more flexibility and I wanted to let the funding tell me when to slow down.”

He is still able to work with students at GSO who he finds well trained and enthusiastic. He notes that GSO’s main competitor is the MIT/Woods Hole program. “But we have been able to tell prospective students that the observational physical work that is done here at GSO is second to none. There is more funding at Woods Hole and Scripps and there are good people there but we are right in there too.”

Watts thinks one solution to the escalating costs for graduate student tuition may be to generate more teaching assistantships.

When he is not studying meandering ocean currents, he and his wife like to hike and one of his volunteer activities is to monitor some of the undeveloped acreage owned by the South Kingstown Land Trust.






212 Watkins Lab




Ph.D. Physics, Cornell University 1973
B.A. Physics, University of California at Riverside, 1966


Randy Watts’ research studies strong ocean current systems — what governs them, and in turn how their meandering and eddy variability influence ocean circulation and climate. Some of his specific projects involved defining the Kushiro Current off Japan; the Gulf Stream; the Loop Current in the Gulf of Mexico; and the Antarctic Circumpolar Current in the Drake Passage.


As a Research Professor, Randy Watts does not teach classroom courses, but he does support and mentor graduate students and postdocs.
OUTREACHWatts’ research staff have developed instrumentation and techniques that are particularly well suited and cost-effective for studying strong current systems and eddies in the ocean. We share this experience with colleagues nationally and internationally, developing instrumentation to assist their studies and training their technicians and scientists.


Bishop, S.P., D.R. Watts, and K.A. Donohue, 2013. “Divergent eddy heat fluxes in the Kuroshio Extension at 144-148E. Part I: mean structure,” Journal of Physical Oceanogr. 43, 1533-1550. doi:10.1175/JPO-D-12-0221.1.

Watts, D.R., M.A. Kennelly, K.A. Donohue, K.L. Tracey, T.K. Chereskin, R.A. Weller, and I. Victoria, 2013. “Four Current Meter Models compared in Strong Currents in Drake Passage,” Journal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Technology, (in press, Sept. 2013)

Bishop, S.P., D.R. Watts, J.-H. Park, and N.G. Hogg, 2012. “Evidence of bottom-trapped currents in the Kuroshio Extension region,” Journal of Physical Oceanography, 42, 321-328 (DOI: 10.1175/JPO-D-11-0144.1)

Greene, A.D., D.R. Watts, G.G. Sutyrin, and H. Sasaki, 2012. “Evidence of Vertical Coupling between the Kuroshio Extension and Topographically-controlled deep Eddies,” Journal of Marine Research, 70, 1-29.

Na, H., J.-H. Park, D.R. Watts, K.A. Donohue, and H.J. Lee, 2012. “Near 13-day Barotropic Ocean Response to Atmospheric Forcing in the North Pacific,” Journal of Geophysical Research, 117, doi:10.1029/2012JC008211, 2012.

Park, J.-H., D.R. Watts, K.A. Donohue, and K.L. Tracey, 2012. “Comparisons of sea surface height variability observed by inverted echo sounders and satellite altimetry in the Kuroshio Extension,” Journal of Oceanography 68, 401-416. (DOI 10.1007/s10872-012-0108-x).

Tracey, K.L., D.R. Watts, K.A. Donohue, and H. Ichikawa, 2012. “Propagation of Kuroshio Extension Meanders between 143E and 149E,” Journal of Physical Oceanography 42, 581-601. (doi: 10.1175/JPO-D-11-0138.1).

Rodrigues, R.R., M. Wimbush, D.R. Watts, L.M. Rothstein, and M. Ollitrault, 2011. “South Atlantic Mass Transports Obtained from Subsurface Float and Hydrographic Data,” Journal of Marine Research 68, 819-850.

Baker-Yeboah, S., D. A. Byrne, and D. R. Watts, 2010. Observations of mesoscale eddies in the South Atlantic Cape Basin: Baroclinic and deep barotropic eddy variability, J. Geophys. Res., 115, C12069, doi:10.1029/2010JC006236

Donohue, K.A., D.R. Watts, K. L. Tracey, A.D. Greene, and M. Kennelly, 2010. “Mapping circulation in the Kuroshio Extension with an array of Current and Pressure recording Inverted Echo Sounders.” Jour. Atmos. and Oceanic Technol. 27:507-527 [DOI:10.1175/2009JTECH0686.1].

Chereskin, T.K., K.A. Donohue, D.R. Watts, K.L. Tracey, Y. Firing, and A.L. Cutting, 2009. “Strong bottom currents and cyclogenesis in Drake Passage.” Geophys. Res. Lett., 36(L23602). [doi:10.1029/2009GL040940]

Greene, A.D., G.G. Sutyrin, and D.R. Watts, 2009. “Deep Cyclogenesis by Synoptic Eddies interacting with a Seamount,” Journal of Marine Research, 67(3):305-322. [DOI:10.1357/002224009789954775]

Howe, P , K.A. Donohue, and D.R. Watts, 2009. “Stream-coordinate Structure and Variability of the Kuroshio Extension,” Deep-Sea. Res. I, 56(7):1093-1116. [doi:10.1016/J.DSR.2009.03.007]

Park, J.-H., D.R. Watts, K.A. Donohue, and S.R. Jayne (2008), “A comparison of in situ bottom pressure array measurements with GRACE measurements in the Kuroshio Extension,” Geophys. Res. Lett., 35, L17601, doi:10.1029/2008GL034778.

Xu, Y., D. R. Watts, M. Wimbush, and J. Park (2007), “Fundamental-mode basin oscillations in the Japan/East Sea,” Geophys. Res. Lett., 34, L04605, doi:10.1029/2006GL028755.

Watts, D. R., M. Wimbush, K.L. Tracey, W.L. Teague, J.-H. Park, D.H. Mitchell, J.-H. Yoon, M.-S., Suk, K.-I. Chang, 2006. “Currents, Eddies, and a ‘Fish Story’ in the Southwestern Japan/East Sea,” /Oceanography/ (TOS), _19_(3), 64-75.

Park, J.-H. and D.R. Watts, 2006. “Near 5-day nonisostatic response of the Atlantic Ocean to atmospheric surface pressure deduced from sub-surface and bottom pressure measurements,” Geophys. Res. Lett., 33, L12610, doi:10.1029/2006GL026304.

Tracey, K.L., D.R. Watts, C.S. Meinen, and D.S. Luther, 2006. “Synoptic maps of temperature and velocity within the Subantarctic front south of Australia,” J. Geophys. Res., 111, C10016, doi:10.1029/2005JC002905 (18pp.)


Watts, D. R., K. L. Tracey, K. A. Donohue, and T. K. Chereskin, “Observed eddy heat fluxes across the ACC in Northern Drake Passage,” Joint Assembly IAHS-IAPSO-IASPEI, PO6S4(03), Gothenburg, Sweden, 22-26 July, 2013.

Bishop, S.P., and D.R. Watts, “Eddy PV Fluxes in the Kuroshio Extension at 144W-148W,” AGU Fall Meeting, San Francisco, OS21A(1657), 2012.

Watts, D.R., K.L. Tracey, K. A. Donohue, and T. K. Chereskin, “Eddy heat fluxes across the Antarctic Circumpolar Current in Northern Drake Passage,” AGU Fall Meeting, San Francisco, OS21A(1655), 2012.

Chidichimo, M.P., K.A. Donohue, D.R. Watts, and K.L. Tracey, “Baroclinic Transport across Drake Passage from the cDrake Array,” AGU/TOS Ocean Sciences Meeting, Salt Lake City, February, 2012.

Tracey, K.L., D.R. Watts and K.A. Donohue, “Deep eddies modulate frontal meander growth in the Kuroshio Extension,” AGU/TOS Ocean Sciences Meeting, Salt Lake City, February, 2012.

Watts, D.R., K.A. Donohue, and K.L. Tracey, “The slowly varying mean Kuroshio Extension current transport from sea surface to sea floor,” AGU/TOS Ocean Sciences Meeting, Salt Lake City, February, 2012.

Watts, D. R., K. L. Tracey, and K. A. Donohue. “Frontal meanders in the Kuroshio Extension.” AGU Ocean Sciences Meeting, Portland, Oregon, February 2010. PO25D-05.

Greene, A. D., D. R. Watts, G. Sutyrin, and H. Sasaki. “Evidence of vertical coupling in the Kuroshio Extension.” AGU Ocean Sciences Meeting, Portland, Oregon, February 2010. PO25D-04.