Happy holidays to chartmakers in the U.S. and around the world

Holiday card 2013

NOAA’s paper nautical charts get a needed update – literally

Paper nautical charts hold a special spot in a sailor’s heart – and in the chart table. The October announcement that the federal government will stop bulk lithographic printing of nautical charts brought some understandable angst to boaters – but fear not! NOAA may be changing the chart production process but we will NOT stop the production of paper charts. We are working with private companies to make them better: printed in brighter colors and available for fast delivery to your door. Most importantly, they are up-to-date to the moment you order it. These improved paper charts are NOAA-certified print-on-demand (POD) nautical charts, created by NOAA Coast Survey cartographers.

While the lithographic paper charts will go away in 2014, anyone can order almost* any printed NOAA chart any time, from the comfort of your home, office, or boat. Just bookmark nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/pod to find the NOAA-certified chart seller who will print your chart “on demand” and ship it to you. 

The great lithographic chart tradition answered a country’s need

For more than 150 years, the traditional paper chart that we all know and love has been printed in bulk on government printing presses, using the lithographic process. Lithographs were the latest and greatest technological achievement in the early 1850s, when Coast Survey superintendent Alexander Bache ordered Coast Survey personnel to explore the potential applications of lithography for printing maps cheaply and easily. Since the charts could be printed on cheaper and far thinner paper, lithographic copies could be folded, which was strategically important as the nation prepared for Civil War.

The new lithography helped the federal government speed the production of the thousands of charts needed for the war effort. According to contemporary reports, Coast Survey organized the “lithographing” division in 1861 “in order to aid the regular copper plate printing department in supplying speedily charts for the great demand made upon the office by the existing exigencies of the naval service, and also to afford the means of printing (under due supervision) a set of descriptive memoirs and sailing directions for the coast, for the use of the naval and military commands.”

Two lithographic presses were set up in the Coast Survey office and, according to Bache in his annual report, “an aggregate of more than two thousand copies of maps and charts were printed from them” in the first year of operation. The presses were set up, Bache says, “in order to meet the call for charts from the Naval Observatory to supply national vessels.”

The impact that lithographic printing process had on chart production is measurable. In 1844, before lithography, Coast Survey made 169 copies of its nautical charts. By the end of the Civil War in 1865, we were churning out more than 50,000 copies annually, and by 1900 we had amped up to 100,000 copies a year. With 20th century improvements in the lithographic presses and processes, Coast Survey produced over 100 million maps and charts for the Allied Forces in World War II.

The lithographic printing presses in 1908 hadn't yet reached the speed and efficiency that would be needed for time of war.
The lithographic printing presses in 1908 hadn’t yet reached the size, speed and efficiency that would be needed during wartime.
During World War II, Coast Survey's map folding room was a busy place.
During World War II, Coast Survey’s map folding room was a busy place.

Today’s digitally-produced paper chart reduces risk for maritime commerce, fishing, and recreational navigation

Coast Survey cartographers apply tens of thousands of changes to NOAA charts every year. Some changes are minor, but many are critical to safe navigation. While lithography was valuable in its day, it can take years before a new chart edition is printed with those updates. Advances in digital technology can now deliver charts that have been updated within the week.

Much of NOAA’s chart information is now delivered electronically to chart display systems, as either NOAA RNC® or NOAA ENC®, but we can also harness digital images for mariners who prefer to keep a paper chart, for primary use or for backup. This digital process gives boaters ready access to updated NOAA-certified paper charts that are printed on demand.

As of today, NOAA has agreements with two companies –  OceanGrafix and East View Geospatial, with their local partners – to print and deliver paper print-on-demand nautical charts. We are working with a dozen other companies that have expressed an interest in becoming a NOAA-certified POD partner, and we will keep the vendor list updated at nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/pod.

Commercial mariners can be assured that NOAA-certified POD charts meet the requirements for the mandatory carriage of nautical charts.

Whether the paper charts are printed using lithographic printing presses or after transmission of digital images, Coast Survey’s mission is and remains the same: to produce the nautical charts that protect life and property. That is a mission that never needs to be updated.

(*”Chart books” of some areas in the Great Lakes are not yet available as POD charts. Watch nauticalcharts.noaa.gov/pod for updates.)

NOAA and Coast Guard work together to get more surveying done in the Arctic

By Ashley Chappell, Integrated Ocean and Coastal Mapping coordinator

With 3.4 million square nautical miles of U.S. waters to survey and chart, Coast Survey is up against some big challenges in keeping nautical charts current. A complete survey of those waters would require over 500 ship years and $5 billion ‒ just to acquire the data. It is no wonder that we put substantial effort into a program known as integrated ocean and coastal mapping (IOCM), where trusted partners can provide high quality, standards-compliant hydrographic survey data for a multitude of uses, including chart creation.

One of our biggest challenges is in the Arctic. Whether you knew it or not, the U.S. is an Arctic nation thanks to Alaska, and this formerly frozen region is becoming more accessible to ship traffic as sea ice melts. But much of our Arctic coastal areas have never had full bottom bathymetric surveys, and some haven’t had more than superficial depth measurements since Captain Cook explored the northern regions in the late 1700s.

So NOAA has a dilemma: how do we survey and chart an ice-diminished Arctic when we have limited resources and limited seasonal access? We assessed data age and quality, we reviewed our chart coverage, and we developed the Arctic Nautical Charting Plan for where we would improve chart coverage if we get new data. But our resources for ship and contract surveys can only do so much, and we need more data…

Monitors on SPAR
Hydrographic survey monitors were installed on the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Spar.

Enter our maritime partners, the U.S. Coast Guard. Since 2008, NOAA has been working with the U.S. Coast Guard in Alaska to improve shipping safety. For instance, the Coast Guard buoy tenders, that set buoys and dayboards used to mark the safe passage through waterways throughout Alaska, were finding that some of the natural channels moved from year to year, and so they started using single beam sonar to find the channels. Seeing a way to support this effort, NOAA experts joined U.S. Coast Guard buoy tenders as they headed into the Bering Sea, helping to train Coast Guard personnel to set the buoys safely, quickly, and accurately.

We also started exploring the possibility of the Coast Guard collecting hydrographic data for nautical charts. In 2012, Lt. Cmdr. Mark Blankenship was NOAA’s lead on a joint NOAA/USCG Arctic hydrographic project aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Hickory from Homer, helping to develop an operational procedure to get Coast Guard survey data to NOAA. This year, we are happy to see that professionalism, enthusiasm, and teamwork has resulted in Coast Guard Cutter SPAR providing Bechevin Bay data that will help guide our decision-making for survey priorities.

SPAR commanding officer Lt. Cmdr. Michele Schallip signed the data set on September 10, and highlighted the contributions of Boatswain Mate 1st Class Michael Cobb, who spearheaded the project, with the assistance of NOAA chief survey technician Tami Beduhn, navigation manager Lt. Matt Forney, and Lt. j.g. Jon Andvick.

With the Alaskan coast comprising 57% of the U.S. navigationally significant waters, a multi-agency partnership for hydro survey data is necessary for maritime safety. This year’s successful SPAR survey is an important step in that effort. We look forward to continuing this work with our fantastic Coast Guard partners, and we hope to expand the IOCM concept to other vessels that have survey capability in the Arctic.

Alaska and CONUS
Size comparison of Alaska and the contiguious states. The blue areas depict the extent of navigationally significant areas for surveying purposes.

Coast Survey unveils NOAA ENC Online Viewer

For more than ten years, since NOAA introduced its electronic navigational charts, you have needed to purchase a specialized chart display system to view the NOAA ENC® as a seamless chart database. Starting today, you don’t need a system to view the ENC depictions; you can use Coast Survey’s new web-based viewer called NOAA ENC® Online. (IMMEDIATE CAVEAT: You still need a specialized display system to use the multi-layered functional data that make ENCs so valuable. NOAA ENC downloads are still free to the public.)

Since NOAA ENC Online is web-based, there is nothing to download. Users can click on the web map and zoom to selected features or locations, to see the information contained in over a thousand ENCs of NOAA-charted waters. Each zoom moves you through an ENC depiction that takes into account the ENC scale band and other attributes that are encoded in the ENC, such as scale minimum and feature masking. This allows the user to seamlessly zoom from the high level of detail of the large scale Band 5 ENCs, to small-scale overviews available on Band 1. Viewers can measure areas and distance, and use other functions.

Screengrab from NOAA ENC Online
Screengrab from NOAA ENC Online

In addition to providing public access to chart data, ENC Online will also help NOAA cartographers improve our current suite of ENCs. For instance, this web service allows cartographers to more easily pinpoint areas that may need additional hydrographic surveys for chart updates and corrections.

ENCs are increasingly popular with commercial mariners, who value the charts’ flexibility and multi-layered information. Starting today, we hope other chart users will plumb the depths of ENC Online and discover its many uses as a practical resource.

NOAA ENC Online is not certified for navigation. It does NOT fulfill chart carriage requirements for regulated commercial vessels under Titles 33 and 46 of the Code of Federal Regulations.

The NOAA ENC Online viewer is powered by Esri Maritime Chart Server technology. The technology provides features that can be leveraged in various GIS and OGC WMS compliant applications.

Better nautical chart images coming to electronic charting systems

Things are changing for U.S. nautical charts. We think you’re really going to like this improvement!

The NOAA RNC is a geo-referenced digital image of the traditional paper chart. When it comes to digital graphics, higher resolution is generally better than lower resolution. Dots per inch (dpi) measures the image resolution: the higher the dpi, the better the resolution, the clearer the image. Today, cartographers at Coast Survey are busy improving the resolution of NOAA RNCs, increasing the chart images from the current 254 dpi to 400 dpi. This change improves the clarity, readability, and aesthetics of this highly popular digital charting product.

Coast Survey maintains over a thousand RNCs that are available as free downloads. Our Marine Chart Division is transitioning the entire suite, updating and checking quality on all the charts, and we expect all RNCs to be upgraded to the 400 dpi by January 2014. Don’t worry, we aren’t taking anything offline. You won’t even notice that we’re changing the RNCs, except that you’ll see clearer images after your chart has been changed to 400 dpi.

RNC screengrab at 254 dpi
RNC screengrab at 254 dpi
RNC screengrab at 400 dpi
RNC screengrab at 400 dpi

This improvement in RNC clarity will make it easier and faster for mariners to interpret the information on the chart. Less time puzzling through ragged graphics means more time to increase situational awareness.

We’ve included a 400 dpi test dataset on the NOAA RNC webpage, so RNC users can give it a try. The test dataset includes BSBs for Detroit, Long Island Sound, Puget Sound, and Tampa Bay. We hope that users and developers will let us know if you discover any problems with the test dataset. (Submit comments here.) We’ve listed some frequently asked questions below.


Does this change the actual format of the RNC? No. The only change is the resolution of the chart image.

Will higher resolution files have bigger file sizes? The average increase in file size is around 50 percent, but that is easily handled by today’s computers, mobile apps, and display systems.

When will all the high-resolution RNCs be available for public download? If the transition goes as planned, NOAA expects to upgrade all RNCs to 400 dpi by the end of 2013.

I currently use the NOAA RNC suite in my chart plotter. Will the high-resolution RNCs work as well? We expect no compatibility issues in this upgrade. If you do have technical problems with this upgrade, contact your software provider for technical assistance. We encourage software providers to let us know of any difficulties during the testing period. Submit comments and questions to NOAA’s Nautical Inquiry & Comment System.

NOAA nautical charts now available as free PDFs

In case you missed it, yesterday we announced an end to government printing of lithographic nautical charts, effective April 13. Lithographs are part of Coast Survey’s proud heritage, since we started using that printing process for mass-producing charts for the Civil War, and it will be hard to see the era end. (See NOAA announces end of traditional paper chart.) While lithographic printing is scheduled to stop, however, the public will continue to be able to purchase NOAA paper charts as up-to-date print-on-demand products.

As one product ends, another begins. We also announced yesterday that our latest addition to the nautical charting portfolio is the new Portable Document Format (PDF) nautical chart, which provides up-to-date navigation information in this universally available file type. Initially, the PDF nautical charts will be available for a three-month trial, from October 22, 2013, to January 22, 2014.

For the trial period, Coast Survey is providing about a thousand high-resolution printable nautical charts—almost the entire NOAA suite of charts—as PDF files. The PDF nautical charts, which are almost exact images of the traditional charts currently printed by lithography, are free.

We are trying this as a trial so we will have an opportunity to hear from the public and evaluate usage. Does the boating community find the charts useful? Is there a better way to provide these free products? Should we continue the new service?

Just as with Print-on-Demand (POD) and NOAA raster navigational charts (NOAA RNC®), PDF nautical charts are updated weekly and include all of the latest critical chart corrections. These files can be printed or viewed depending on the customer’s choice.

(NOTE: For mariners using paper charts to meet chart carriage requirements under federal regulations, only printed charts provided by NOAA-certified POD providers will meet U.S. requirements when the traditional lithographic nautical charts are no longer available. POD charts meet stringent print standards and can be recognized by an official certification of authenticity printed on the chart.)

Key features of the PDF nautical chart

  • Updated Weekly. PDF charts are up-to-date with critical corrections from Notice to Mariners.
  • Available Immediately. New PDF chart editions are available two to eight weeks sooner than traditional NOAA paper charts have been.
  • Enhanced Readability. These are printed in brighter colors, so the charts are easier to read. Additionally, the files are high resolution, at 400 dpi.
  • Printable. Most charts can be printed from any plotter capable of plotting 36” width to achieve 1:1 scale.
  • Easy to view. PDF files can be viewed with free PDF readers such as Adobe Reader. If you do not already have this viewer installed on your computer, you may obtain it at no cost from the Adobe Reader webpage. Other free PDF readers can be found by searching the Internet.

It’s only been 24 hours since we released the PDF nautical charts, but so far the reaction is good. “Like very much. Resolution is terrific, even when zoomed to 400%,” says one commenter. “Another good backup, and good for route ‘browsing’ …I would strongly recommend that these be made a permanent chart option. Thanks so much.”

Another commenter tells us, “I want to give a big thumbs UP for the new PDF format for nautical charts (and free download). We downloaded the Puget Sound region this morning and immediately used it to locate a mysterious point that had been entered in a dive fishery log book. Excellent product! I hope they remain available for free download.”

The flexibility seems to be popular with chart users. “I’m commenting on the trial project to make Great Lakes Nautical Charts available as PDF files. It is a great service and should become a permanent part of NOAA’s services. As a kayaker who paddles on the Great Lakes, I appreciate this service very much. For my needs, a full sized chart is usually far more paper than is needed. With the PDF service, I can crop targeted areas and print for use. I will be telling my paddling friends about this trial service.”

Even non-boaters like them. “The pdf chart downloads are for my purposes, just great. I don’t navigate (typically). But I do need to reference shipping lanes, underwater obstructions, berth numbers, port configurations, bridge clearances, basic hydrographic info, etc. in my work. Being able to view them on my computer is extremely helpful.”

There have been some early shortfalls, we recognize. As one commenter pointed out, “I tried to download your new pdf chart for my home port. With no index or linked index, it is pretty unusable for the masses.” True, when we opened the site yesterday, we only had a list of the chart numbers. Until we integrate a new chart viewing service into the PDF nautical chart service, we suggest that people find their chart number by using our Online Chart Viewer.

What do you think about the PDF nautical charts? We’d like to hear from you.

Chart 12283
We reduced the size of the file to save PDF nautical chart 12283 as a jpg. Click and zoom to get a better idea of the resolution. (The online PDFs are even better!)

NOAA Ship Fairweather surveying ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach for shipping safety

From surveying our most northern Alaskan waters last year, to our southern coastal waters this year, NOAA Ship Fairweather has really been making the hydrographic rounds, so to speak. This month, Fairweather’s hydrographic work is reaping benefits for the maritime industry in Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Fairweather is surveying this area in response to requests from the Port of Los Angeles, the Port of Long Beach, and the pilots who maneuver increasing large oil tankers and cargo ships through the area’s crowded shipping lanes. This project will acquire data for comprehensive updates to NOAA nautical charts 18749 and 18751, which provide the depth measurements and aids to navigation that mariners rely on for safe transit. Fairweather last surveyed the area in 1975, and NOAA contracted for a small survey in 2000.

FA survey in LA/LB
This chart shows where NOAA Ship Fairweather is surveying.

This project undertakes surveys encompassing 114 square nautical miles. Of those, NOAA considers 89 SNM as critical to safe navigation and therefore a NOAA priority. The survey areas include San Pedro Bay and its approaches, stretching south to the waters off Huntington Beach and Newport Beach.

Capt. Kip Louttit, executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California San Pedro, presents a certificate of appreciation to Fairweather's commanding officer, Cmdr. James Crocker.
Capt. Kip Louttit, executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California San Pedro, presents a certificate of appreciation to Fairweather‘s commanding officer, Cmdr. James Crocker. Photo courtesy of Capt. Kip Louttit

Retired Coast Guard captain J. Kip Louttit, executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California San Pedro, visited the ship last week to thank the “great ship and crew [for] doing an incredibly necessary survey for the ports.”

The Fairweather usually operates in Alaskan coastal waters and, last year, conducted a noteworthy hydrographic reconnaissance along the U.S. coast in Arctic waters to determine the priorities for updating Arctic charts. Fairweather is part of the NOAA fleet of ships and aircraft operated, managed, and maintained by NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, which includes both civilians and the commissioned officers of the NOAA Corps, one of the seven uniformed services of the United States. The ship is homeported in Ketchikan, Alaska.