It was only ten short years ago that NOAA began issuing electronic navigational charts (NOAA ENC®) as official products. As we look back, the promises of a product that emerged a decade ago continue to beckon, with even more uses and greater usage.
“We still make the traditional paper charts that mariners have depended on, but the world of navigation is changing, and Coast Survey is helping to lead that change,” explains Rear Admiral Gerd Glang, director of NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey. “Increasingly, mariners use – and soon will be required to use – electronic systems and displays to view and manage the safe navigation of their ships.”
The initial focus of Coast Survey’s ENC program, as the effort began in 1997, was to provide electronic chart coverage of the nation’s 40 major commercial port areas. Coast Survey first issued provisional ENCs in July 2001, and asked the public to evaluate the new product. Two years later, after a million downloads and with strong approbation from the maritime industry, Coast Survey removed the “provisional” designation. It wasn’t long before Coast Survey started extending the program to smaller scale coastal ENCs that connected the ports.
Within six months of “officialdom,” Coast Survey had produced 364 ENCs. Today, Coast Survey has 995 ENCs, with more in the pipeline.
Usage continues to surge. As recently as five years ago, we were averaging about 900,000 downloads a month. Now we average more than 9 million downloads a month – all of them free to any user, anywhere in the world. Granted, it is so easy to download our entire suite of charts that many users simply hit “all” for downloads – while they walk away to get a cup of coffee – and, by the time they return to their computer, the ten or twenty charts they really wanted are easy to pick out from the suite. That ease of downloading adds to the usefulness of ENCs.
The U.S. Coast Survey, our predecessor agency, published our first paper nautical chart – the Map of New York Bay and Harbor and the Environs – in 1845. In 1990, we began producing raster charts for use in electronic navigation systems. Raster navigational charts are digital pictures of paper charts, with geo-referencing and other digital data added. ENCs are also digital, but they contain data rather than simple pictures. Creating an electronic chart from a database of objects and their attributes gives users the ability to turn the objects on and off when the chart is displayed on a computer screen.
ENCs can also alert mariners to danger. For instance, in March 2012, Coast Survey upgraded the ENCs that cover the approaches to the East Coast (US2EC04M, US2EC03M, US2EC02M, and US2GC12M), to alert mariners when they approach the right whale seasonal management areas, giving mariners better information to plan to reduce their speeds or avoid the areas altogether.
So much has changed in ten years. So much has improved. The next decade should bring ENC improvements that are equally exciting.