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Steve Elgar Named National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellow

Steve Elgar Elgar is among 15 exceptional faculty scientists and engineers from U.S. universities in this year’s class of fellows. This is the second NSSEFF award Elgar has received. He also was chosen as part of the 2009 class. (Photo courtesy of Steve Elgar, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

April 14, 2016

Steve Elgar, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), has been selected as a 2016 National Security Science and Engineering Faculty Fellow (NSSEFF) by the Department of Defense.

Elgar, a physical oceanographer in the Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering Department at WHOI, is among 15 exceptional faculty scientists and engineers from U.S. universities in this year’s class of fellows, which includes a Nobel Prize Laureate. This is the second NSSEFF award Elgar has received. He also was chosen as part of the 2009 class.

The prestigious and highly competitive program awards five-year, $3 million grants to top-tier scientists and engineers to conduct long-term, unclassified basic research of strategic importance to the Department of Defense.

“These grants engage outstanding scientists and engineers in the most challenging technical issues facing the Department,” said Dr. Melissa L. Flagg, deputy assistant secretary of defense for research.

Ranging in fields from quantum physics to neuroscience, the new fellows will conduct research in core science and engineering disciplines that underpin future DoD technology development. They also will share their knowledge and insight with DoD military and civilian leaders, researchers in DoD laboratories, and the national security science and engineering community, Flagg said.

“It is an honor to be chosen because the NSSEFF fellows are amazing scientists and engineers—among the best in the world,” said Elgar, who is the only oceanographer in a cohort of 50 past and present fellows.  “It is also a statement about the wonderful environment for research that WHOI provides.”

Elgar’s research focuses on the surf zone—the fast-moving and turbulent area where ocean waves and high energy currents meet the shoreline.

“It’s a challenging laboratory to work in,” Elgar said. “The system is energetic, with big waves, strong currents, and sand moving around in all directions. We say it is like trying to do experiments in a giant washing machine.”

This area is of particular importance when it comes to understanding and predicting dangerous rip currents, coastal flooding, beach erosion, and other impacts from big storms like Hurricane Sandy.

“We want to understand the interactions between waves, currents, and the seafloor so that we can develop numerical models that simulate surfzone hydrodynamics on small spatial (few meters) and short temporal (few minutes) scales,” Elgar said. “Predictive models are necessary to investigate possible effects of sealevel rise, large storms, and manmade structures. Moreover, skillful model predictions will help plan and execute civilian and military operations in this energetic environment.”

Elgar’s NSSEFF project will combine remotely sensed images of the sea surface using LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), infrared cameras, and optical sensors, with measurements from wave and current sensors deployed in the water, and with numerical models to increase the fundamental understanding of physical processes near the shoreline.

“With numerical models, we can be better prepared for different scenarios,” he said. “No model is going to be able to tell us exactly where each and every rip current is at any particular time. But we hope to develop a model that will be able to tell us the likelihood of having rip currents on a given day in a certain area. That’s important information to know for the safety of swimmers, whether it’s families at the beach or Marines getting off a boat with 100-pound backpacks. Neither wants to swim in a dangerous rip current.”

“Steve’s insight and creativity and his willingness to tackle the most vexing problems in the near shore environment have made him one of the world-leading experts on surf zone processes,” said WHOI President and Director Mark Abbott. “He is an outstanding representative of WHOI—combining science, technology, and collaboration together in ways that continually advance our knowledge of the ocean.”

The NSSEFF grant also provides funding for students and postdocs in Elgar’s lab, which is an important component of the research program that stresses training future scientists through student participation.

Elgar joined the WHOI staff in 1999, as a senior scientist in the Applied Ocean Physics and Engineering department. He has authored or coauthored more than 125 research papers. He is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Geophysical Union, and the American Meteorological Society.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Mass., dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. For more information, please visit