James H. Swift
Research Scientist Emeritus

James Howard Swift is a retired research oceanographer and academic administrator at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego. His primary scientific interests are the waters and circulation of the Arctic Ocean and Nordic Seas, the global climate-scale intermediate and deep circulation, and ocean measurement and interpretation. As an academic administrator, he was the former scientific director of Scripps’s Oceanographic Data Facility – a group specializing in reference quality measurements of ocean temperature, salinity, and various dissolved substances that provides instrumentation, data-gathering services, and data processing in support of physical, chemical, and biological oceanographic research for marine scientists nationwide. He was also director of the CLIVAR and Carbon Hydrographic Data Office (CCHDO) at Scripps, and coordinated the field work for the academic institutions involved in the US Global Ocean Carbon and Repeat Hydrography program (now known as US GO-SHIP). After 2018 his ODF, CCHDO, and GO-SHIP responsibilities were taken on by others at SIO (Todd Martz, Karen Stocks, and Isa Rosso, respectively).

Swift studies the physical properties of the oceans, including circulation, deep-ocean mixing, and water chemistry. His research in physical oceanography covers most of the world’s oceans, with particular emphasis on deep ocean circulation and the Arctic regions. Swift has participated on 33 oceanographic expeditions, often as chief scientist or lead hydrographic scientist, in most of the oceans, with emphasis on the Southern and especially Arctic Oceans, summing to about three years at sea. 

Born in Toledo, Ohio, Swift graduated from Case Western Reserve University with a bachelor’s degree in physics. He received a master’s degree in physical oceanography and a doctorate in physical oceanography, both from the University of Washington, Seattle. Following graduation, he became a postdoctoral research oceanographer with the Marine Life Research Group at Scripps.

Swift was appointed to the faculty research series with the Marine Life Research Group. He left Scripps to become a research associate professor with the School of Oceanography at the University of Washington. The following year he returned to Scripps as associate research oceanographer and director of the Oceanographic Data Facility. He then became director of the WOCE Hydrographic Program Office, the predecessor of the CCHDO.

In the early 1980s Swift saw the potential of the Arctic Ocean as an active contributor to the global circulation but was stymied in exploring this further by the inadequate data available. Since that time, and with a great deal of work done by many colleagues, agencies, and institutions, much has been accomplished. His present work explores the relationship of the new observations to four broad themes: circulation patterns, decadal-scale fluctuations in circulation and water properties, structure in mid-depth water properties, and connections between the various basins and the other oceans. Ongoing research projects include studies of the Chukchi Sea and bordering regions, the central Arctic Ocean, and the Nordic Seas.

Swift is the author of more than 60 refereed technical and scientific publications. Much of his work entails analysis of hydrographic sections, and he is one of the developers of a computer-based oceanographic application, Java OceanAtlas (JOA), used in research and teaching programs, that allows the user to easily examine and plot ocean section data in an interactive graphic exploration environment.

Swift’s service at the national level has been ongoing. He was the founding Chair of the UNOLS Arctic Icebreaker Coordinating Committee and was a member of the UNOLS Council. He also served on the US Antarctic Research Vessel Oversight Committee, has chaired the National Science Foundation Office of Polar Programs Advisory Committee, and also their subcommittee on the McMurdo Antarctic Resupply. He has served on two National Academy of Science study committees and was a member of their Polar Research Board. From December 2011 through January 2013 he was the Program Director for the Antarctic Research and Logistics Integration Program in the Office of Polar Programs at NSF.

Swift is a member of the American Geophysical Union, the Oceanography Society, and Tau Beta Pi. He received the Ocean Sciences Award from the American Geophysical Union in 2011.

Swift is also an amateur musician, and especially enjoys his position as second bassoonist in the La Jolla Symphony, which is an excellent community orchestra. He takes a practice bassoon to sea, and has played it on the ice at the North Pole (2005) and in sight of the Scott “Discovery Hut” near McMurdo Station, Antarctica (2011).

Last updated June 2019