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Happy birthday to the man whose scientific integrity laid NOAA’s cornerstone   Leave a comment


Ferdinand R. Hassler

Today, October 7, Coast Survey celebrates the 245th anniversary of the birth of Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler, the Swiss immigrant whose plan to survey the U.S. coast was selected as the basis for the federal government’s first scientific foray, and who was to become the first superintendent of the U.S. Coast Survey. Hassler’s determination and uncompromising adherence to accuracy, precision, and scientific integrity during the decades-long struggle to establish the nation’s charting agency is a cornerstone of the NOAA of today.

Retired NOAA Captain Albert “Skip” Theberge, the noted NOAA historian, has written THE definitive paper on “The Hassler Legacy,” available online at the NOAA Library website. Theberge notes the formal biographical details, but then he goes beyond that, explaining how Hassler’s training and temperament contrasted with – and perhaps played into – the political machinations that resulted in a decades-long delay in the effort to create the young nation’s nautical charts.

On March 25, 1807 (after Congress passed “an act to provide for surveying the coasts of the United States”), Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin issued a notice to all interested scientific men in the United States, asking for plans to conduct the coastal survey. Hassler responded to Gallatin’s letter less than a week later, and his proposal for a trigonometrically-based survey was accepted in July. And then it gets really interesting. From Theberge’s article:

“However, no action was taken to begin the survey until 1811 because of the unsettled international political climate. Although Jefferson was among the most scientific of United States presidents, it was odd that he was instrumental in passing a law for the Survey of the Coast in early 1807; just three months before he had instituted an economic embargo against both England and France because of their depredations against American ships and seamen. This embargo resulted in the recall of over 20,000 American seamen on the high seas and effectively terminated the American merchant marine and international trade. The embargo continued until the end of his administration.”

“Jefferson’s successor, James Madison, reinstituted the Survey and sent Hassler to Great Britain in late 1811 to procure survey instruments. Because of continuing difficulties between the two nations, Madison declared war on Great Britain eight months after Hassler’s arrival in London.”

The inconvenience of being in England (and later, France) during the War of 1812 doesn’t come close to the inconvenience caused by “those penurious keepers of the public monies,” according to Theberge. Hassler went for long periods of not being paid, his purchase of survey instruments cost more than he was authorized (so he paid the difference out of his own pocket), and then the government refused to provide for his transportation home.

Florian Cajori, Hassler’s biographer, wrote:

“… A country of almost unlimited resources permitted this able scientist, who was giving his thoughts day after day to the advancement of science and to the glory of his adopted country, to return to America at his own expense and under financial embarrassment. The Government… permitted Hassler to be personally considerably poorer than he was before he undertook his mission to Europe.”

Despite the bad treatment, Hassler accepted the appointment as Superintendent of the Survey of the Coast on August 3, 1816, and he was soon on survey reconnaissance in New Jersey, accompanied by his son. In January 1817, after just a few months of work, the Treasury Secretary asked him to “state the probable time which will be required for the execution of this Survey.”

Theberge expounds nicely on the situation:

“Consider for a moment the utter lack of understanding by the national leaders of the nature of the task of charting the coast of the United States. There was a naivete, indicative of the state of scientific and engineering knowledge in the United States during the early nineteenth century, when Secretary Crawford asked a man, who had to construct his own measuring instruments, had no vessels, and had only his son for help, how long it would take to complete the Survey of the Coast.”

The next spring, the Survey of the Coast – and Hassler – took a major hit. Congress decided that only “persons belonging to the army or navy” should be employed for the survey. Hassler was out, and 15 years of scientific debate and survey ineptitude followed. It was during this time, cast off from the government, when Hassler laid out his vision. The task, he explained, was to construct a great triangulation network that would serve as the control for all nautical surveys as well as all national land surveys. In addition to the geodetic foundation for mapping the land and charting the coasts, Hassler envisioned the establishment of a national mapping organization.

Hassler, at age 62, was reappointed as superintendent on August 9, 1832, when the Survey was transferred back into civilian control within the Treasury Department. In 1834, the Survey of the Coast finally took its first ocean soundings. In 1836, the Survey of the Coast was renamed U.S. Coast Survey. Hassler served as superintendent until his death on November 20, 1843.

Ferdinand R. Hassler’s scientific achievements had laid the foundation for much of today’s NOAA.

Hassler's first triangulation diagram

Diagram of Hassler’s original triangulation from 1817 and 1833-1834. Library of Congress, “A collection of maps, charts, drawings, surveys, etc, published from time to time, by order of the two houses of Congress.”

New small survey boats for hard working navigation response teams   1 comment

To a marine pilot looking forward to a long-awaited nautical chart update, a white NOAA survey ship “mowing the lawn” of the approaches to a port is a gorgeous site. The ship slowly moving back and forth, collecting hydrographic data from the ocean floor, is easily recognizable.

Less well known are Coast Survey’s smaller survey vessels, operated by navigation response teams (NRTs) situated strategically along the U.S. coasts. These vessels are hard worked by two- or three-member teams of physical scientists and technicians who must know everything about the vessel, the specialized survey equipment, and the science of collecting and processing data. On top of all that, they must be expert sailors.

Recognizing the value that these teams and vessels bring to our survey and charting responsibilities — not to mention their essential work in locating underwater debris after hurricanes — NOAA is “recapitalizing” the NRT fleet, building new small boats specifically designed for hydrographic surveying. The first two boats, built by Lake Assault Boats of Superior, Wisconsin, were delivered this week to navigation response teams surveying ports in California and the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

NRT 6 new boat

A new survey boat was recently delivered to a navigation response team surveying in California.

“All of the navigation response team survey boats are nearing or have exceeded their designed service life,” said Russ Proctor, chief of Coast Survey’s Navigation Services Division. “A phased program to replace the navigation response team boats over the next three years will help NOAA maintain the program’s crucial capacity for inshore surveys and rapid response in emergencies.”

Coast Survey’s phased retirement of its current fleet of NRT vessels has prioritized the replacement of boats experiencing the highest escalating maintenance costs.

Navigation response teams protect navigation while they wait for new vessels

In the last 30 days alone, Coast Survey’s navigation response teams have located potential dangers in Georgia and California waters.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Unit Savannah asked for Coast Survey assistance in locating a fishing vessel that sank on Sunday, September 6. A Coast Survey navigation response team, led by Erik Anderson, located the wreck off Cumberland Island in St. Andrew Sound, pinpointed its position and depth, and delivered images of the vessel.

It was important that the team move quickly. A dive team sent by the Coast Guard on September 7 was unable to locate the wreck — and time was of the essence, since there were indications that the vessel had approximately 700 to 1,000 gallons of diesel onboard. In addition to needing a report on the condition of the vessel (was it intact or in pieces?), the Coast Guard had to find out if the wreck was obstructing a navigable waterway.

The navigation response team hit the water early on September 8. By 10:40 a.m., within two hours of operations, Anderson reported that his team located the wreck with side scan sonar and developed it with their multibeam echo sounder.

Cumberland Island wreck

Using side scan sonar, a navigation response team located this wreck near Cumberland Island.

“The boat appears to be sitting on its port side with the least depth [26 feet] coming from its mast that is located on the top of the wheelhouse,” Anderson reported. “The least depth is based on preliminary tides but will most likely stick as the tide station data looks to be solid for today,” he explained.

On August 26, a navigation response team in Richmond, California, (led by Laura Pagano) was putting the finishing touches on upgrades to Coast Survey’s MIST kit — a mobile, quick-install side scan / single beam sonar kit that can be quickly set up on a vessel of opportunity. While they were taking the MIST through its paces, they found a potential danger to navigation in the Richmond Channel. After the California navigation manager notified appropriate authorities, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers removed the obstruction before it could do any damage.


Richmond Channel object

This is the object discovered by the navigation response team, after it was pulled from the Richmond Channel. Danger to navigation averted.

Posted September 23, 2015 by NOAA Office of Coast Survey in Navigation response teams

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Today in WWII history: Adm. Nimitz recognizes Coast & Geodetic Survey assistance in “making possible” Japanese surrender   2 comments

On September 2, 1945, the Japanese officially surrendered to end WWII. A photo from the day, showing Admiral Chester Nimitz signing the Japanese surrender document, has his personal message: “To Rear Admiral H. Arnold Karo, USC&GS — with best wishes and great appreciation of the assistance of the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in making possible the above scene. C. W. Nimitz, Fleet Admiral, U. S. Navy.”

Adm. Nimitz inscribes photo, expresses appreciation for USC&GS contributions.

Adm. Nimitz was a signatory to the Instrument of Surrender. On this photo, he inscribed his appreciation for the contributions of U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey personnel during WWII.

The U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey was one of NOAA’s predecessor agencies, and today’s uniformed NOAA Corps had its beginnings with WWI, when the commissioned service of the USC&GS was formed. During WWII, the Coast and Geodetic Survey sent over 1000 civilian members and over half of its commissioned officers to the military services. (See The World Wars.) Coast Surveyors served as hydrographers, artillery surveyors, cartographers, army engineers, intelligence officers, and geophysicists in all theaters of the war. Civilians, on the home front, produced over 100 million maps and charts for the Allied forces. Eleven members of the USC&GS gave their lives during WWII. 

In recent remembrance of the service and sacrifice of those men and women, Cmdr. Matt Wingate, commanding officer of NOAA’s Marine Operations Center ‒ Pacific Islands, recently wrote this report:

Fireworks lit up the Honolulu night on August 15. Seventy years ago — August 15, 1945 — Emperor Hirohito broadcast news of Japan’s surrender to the Japanese people — and the world. As a result, August 14 (because of the international dateline) and 15 are forever known as VJ Day or “Victory over Japan Day.”

Peace Fireworks

Aug 15, 2015, Ford Island, Hawaii — The “Peace Fireworks” with NOAA’s new Inouye Regional Center silhouetted on the right.

To honor this historic event, the U.S. Navy and the cities of Honolulu, Hawaii, and Nagaoka, Japan, celebrated seventy years of peace with a solemn ceremony and spectacular fireworks. (Nagaoka is the home town of Admiral Yamamoto, the key planner behind the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor.)

Commemorative Japanese Zero plane flies over Hawaii during celebration of peace.

Aug 15, 2015, Ford Island, Hawaii — A restored Japanese Zero flies over NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette in commemoration of seventy years of peace between Japan and the United States.

As I watched the fireworks with shipmates aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette, an overwhelming sense of pride and humility descended. Proud to be witnessing such a historic event, proud to be part of this amazing agency and its legacy, and also humbled by history. What a difference 70 years can make. Take a look at the historic photo with Admiral Nimitz’s signed note. I hope you get goose bumps at what he wrote to the U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey director, Rear Admiral Karo. That’s a proud chapter of our legacy!

Something happened recently that also made me proud of our mariners. I recently met the chief of staff for Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickham. We were scheduled to meet for 30 minutes, but the meeting extended to almost an hour because the commander was so intrigued with NOAA’s mission and the mariners who sail NOAA ships. The amount of time NOAA mariners spend at sea was especially impactful on him. As I left him, I was proud of our mariners and their salty heritage. His admiration for NOAA’s mariners was palpable.

I hope NOAA mariners hold that feeling in your work vests, and pull it out when needed. Stay focused, stay safe, and be proud of your efforts. Others certainly are.

New autonomous surface vehicles to deliver shoaler depth measurements for NOAA nautical charts   5 comments

If you look closely at any U.S. coastal nautical chart, you’ll likely find that the areas closest to the shore, shoals, and rocks do not have updated depth measurements. In many areas, safety concerns prohibit the use of NOAA ships or launches to survey the shoalest depths. In many areas, the water is too murky to be mapped with the airborne lidar systems used in clear waters. Now, however, charting those shallow areas is about to get safer, thanks to recent purchases of small, commercial off-the-shelf, unmanned survey vessels.

This summer, NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson will deploy a “Z-Boat,” offered by Teledyne Oceanscience out of Carlsbad, California.

Lt. Carrier deploys Z-Boat

Lt. Joseph Carrier, operations officer on NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson, deploys a Z-Boat from the ship.

The Z-Boat complements the ship’s existing hydrographic toolkit.

  • Thomas Jefferson uses its multibeam echo sounder to measure depths from 45 to 1000 feet.
  • For shallower and more constricted waters, the ship’s two hydrographic survey launches with multibeam echo sounders efficiently and safely survey areas from 12 to 200 feet deep.
  • With the new Z-Boat (using a single beam echo sounder), Thomas Jefferson can measure depths in areas as shallow as one foot, and get that data into processing almost immediately. The boats are highly maneuverable, turning in their own 5.5-foot length, meaning they can get much closer to piers, pilings, and the shoreline than a full-sized launch.

This new capability is important to improving charts for smaller vessels operating near the coast, and in the inlets, bays, and harbors so critical to many small coastal towns. In the 1930s, the Roosevelt Administration – through its massive Depression-era public works program – hired hundreds of men to survey shallow Intracoastal Waterway areas. However, NOAA has done very little survey work in shallow water in the 80 years since then. Not surprisingly, there is a backlog of reported shoals, rocks, wrecks, and obstructions in shallow water, leading to an increased risk of grounding for those smaller vessels. Knowing the depth in these inlets is also important to accurately predicting coastal inundation during storms.

Thomas Jefferson, with the support of NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations’ innovative platform program, plans to use two Z-Boats this summer in Massachusetts to investigate shoals and rocks in Buzzard’s Bay and Vineyard Sound. This December, they will use them in a project near Chesapeake Bay.

Doug Wood deploys Z-Boat

Doug Wood, physical scientist on NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson, deploys a Z-Boat from the ship’s fantail.

“Coast Survey has been exploring the use of autonomous underwater vehicles – AUVs – to support nautical charting for over a decade,” explains Rear Admiral Gerd Glang, Coast Survey director. “Autonomous surface vehicle – ASV – technologies have advanced in recent years, and NOAA is now also exploring these for our hydrographic operations. The Z-Boat is one of several autonomous surface vehicles that we are experimenting with.”

Through a hydrographic survey contract with NOAA, TerraSond (Palmer, Alaska) is using an ASV in addition to their traditional manned boats. (See this article in Marine Technology News.)

One of the benefits of using off-the-shelf vehicles like Z-Boats is that hydrographers are able to calibrate the boats and put them into use quickly, without the need for additional installation and integration of a survey system. Thomas Jefferson took delivery of the boats on August 13. They now have qualified the system for hydrographic use, developed first-generation deployment and retrieval systems, and trained a cadre of Z-boat “pilots.”

“Two weeks from delivery to a calibrated system with trained operators is a significant achievement,” said Capt. Shepard Smith, Thomas Jefferson’s commanding officer. “We have already used them to conduct a small survey in Newport, Rhode Island, and we are thrilled with the new capability this boat will give us in our coastal projects.”

Thomas Jefferson will operate the boats from a control station on the ship or one of their launches. Depending on the circumstances, technicians have several options to control the boats, by using: 1) a handheld remote control; 2) a networked radio link with one-mile range; or 3) an onboard autonomy module. NOAA is working with Teledyne and with researchers at the University of New Hampshire-NOAA Joint Hydrography Center to develop improvements to the boat’s autonomy system that will permit it to gradually work more independently of the operator. With more Z-Boat autonomy, survey ships can operate a larger fleet of boats without adding additional operators.

ENS Head pilots Z-Boat

Ensign Marybeth Head pilots a Z-Boat in preparation for autonomous operations during training.

Capt. Richard T. Brennan, chief of the Coast Survey Development Laboratory, puts this move into a strategic technology context.

“NOAA envisions unmanned and autonomous systems working in conjunction with our manned systems, deployed and controlled from our hydrographic survey ships,” Brennan explained. “The Z-Boats are the first step towards unmanned surface vessels. We are looking forward to the lessons learned to drive further innovation in communications and automation technology.”

Thomas Jefferson will be exploring other options for the boats. For instance, Z-Boats have an onboard streaming video camera, so the operator can see what the boat “sees” in real-time, raising the possibility of additional uses beyond depth measurements. And although these Z-Boats are fitted with single beam echo sounders appropriate to very shallow water, there is an option to fit them with side scan sonar, or a multibeam system, for other applications.

“Deploying the Z-Boat from the Thomas Jefferson is a significant milestone for the NOAA fleet,” said Rear Admiral David Score, director of the Office of Marine and Aviation Operations. “In the coming decade, these types of unmanned systems will become the norm. We will be able to build on Thomas Jefferson’s experience in unmanned systems as we expand these programs into the broad range of scientific observations that the NOAA fleet provides.”

The ship is selecting the nicknames of the two Z-Boats. Go to the NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson Facebook page, and see what names they are considering!

Hurricane Katrina: 10 Years Later   Leave a comment

Ten years ago this week, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, affecting millions of lives. This disaster brought together all of Coast Survey’s capabilities on an unprecedented scale to help in response and recovery efforts in the storm’s aftermath. Ten years later, Coast Survey reflects back on the planning and response to Hurricane Katrina, and looks to their progress in developing tools to aid in coastal resilience.

Explore the story map.

image of story map

Hurricane Katrina: Ten Years Later
NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey looks back

Posted August 24, 2015 by NOAA Office of Coast Survey in Nautical charts

Coast Survey adds navigation assets to NOAA preparations for Hurricane Danny   1 comment

Hurricane Danny is churning in the Atlantic. NOAA hurricane models are churning through data, and two NOAA sensor-packed Hurricane Hunters — a Lockheed WP-3D Orion and a Gulfstream IV — are in Barbados, flying into the storm to collect storm data. Over the next few days, scientists on the ground and in the air will help us determine where Danny will go, and how big the hurricane will get.

In the meantime, NOAA Office of Coast Survey is tracking the NOAA forecasts and making initial preparations for deployment of hydrographic survey equipment to Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands, if needed.

Hurricane Hunter and NRT

NOAA’s hurricane response arsenal includes “Hurricane Hunter” aircraft and deployable survey vessels.

MIST rigs vessel with SSS

Coast Survey’s mobile integrated survey team (MIST) rigs a vessel of opportunity with side scan sonar for detecting underwater obstructions.

Coast Survey mobilizes survey teams to search for underwater debris and shoaling after hurricanes, to speed the resumption of ocean-going commerce. When we can’t reach the area with our navigation response team vessels, we send a special mobile integrated survey team (MIST) with the equipment. Then we find a “vessel of opportunity,” install the equipment, and the team goes into the water as soon as it is practicable. (A MIST operation in Maine, deployed for a different set of reasons, demonstrated its effectiveness when it assisted the fishing fleet out of Cobscook Bay.)

At almost the first suggestion that Danny would turn into a hurricane, the U.S. Coast Guard in San Juan was determining Coast Survey’s response capabilities. Does NOAA have the assets available to help re-open ports in Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands, they asked Mike Henderson, Coast Survey’s navigation manager for Florida, PR, and USVI. Yes, he answered. The MIST is ready to go to any Caribbean location. In addition, the Navigation Response Branch chief, Lt. Cmdr. Holly Jablonski, reports that navigation response teams are preparing for possible mobilization on the Gulf Coast and East Coast, in case Danny maintains strength and heads to the mainland.

Additionally, Coast Survey’s coastal modeling experts are preparing to test a new storm surge model for predicting coastal flooding from Danny. This model, in experimental use this summer, would predict the flooding caused by the combined effects of hurricane-driven storm surges and tide signals. With a large, flexible grid that extends from South America to Canada, it provides an unprecedented scope for tracking the impact hurricanes have on coastal water levels as these storms cross the Atlantic Ocean and impact the U.S. coastline.

Report from the Arctic: Surveying Kotzebue Sound 2015   Leave a comment

By Starla Robinson, project manager in Coast Survey’s Hydrographic Surveys Division

Two hundred years after Otto von Kotzebue and the crew of the Ruiric explored what would later be named Kotzebue Sound, NOAA ships Fairweather and Rainer follow in the same tradition. Two centuries ago they were searching for the Northwest Passage in support of trade. Today, we explore to improve the science and safety of navigation in support of commerce, environmental protection, and local communities. Our bathymetric data and observations will also be used to better inform coastal decision-making.

kotzebue-historical charts

Original chart of Kotzebue Sound (left). 1973 chart of Kotzebue Sound (right). Today’s chart of the project area is not significantly different from that of 1973.

Many things have changed since the crew of the Ruiric braved these waters. However, operations in the Arctic are still challenging. For much of the year Kotzebue Sound is frozen over. The remote location makes arriving and maintaining basic needs of the ships and crew difficult–just being here is a success.

Technology has made navigation safer and surveying more efficient. For example, rather than the discrete lead lines that were once used to obtain depth measurement data in this project area (which is about the size of Delaware), multibeam echo sounders acquire the same amount of data in just one square meter. For multibeam surveys, the speed of sound must be measured in the water column and the motion of the vessel must be recorded and corrected in the data. We use side scan sonar to produce imagery of the sea floor. GPS is used to triangulate our position rather than sailors taking bearings on shore stations. To better refine our precision, we construct horizontal and vertical control stations that must be operational before bathymetry data can even be collected.

It takes teamwork on and off the ship and NOAA has brought together many resources. Contractors are used to establish vertical control stations recording water levels. The Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services (CO-OPS) monitors the data and creates tide models. Subject matter experts in side scan sonar assist with the surveying effort. Teams on land plan and support the expedition and continue to process the data for the chart after the ships have left. Many things have to align to make our charting efforts a success.

On the ship, our exposed location limits survey activities.  The small boats for survey can only be deployed when the sea state is safe. Teams must brave the surf to maintain the control stations.  The crews of the Rainier and Fairweather work hard to take advantage of windows of good weather. They work long hours, in rough conditions, away from convenience and family, in pursuit of the chart. We are today’s explorers seeing the full picture of the seafloor for the first time.

Chart of Kotzebue Sound, AK, with bathymetric data.

NOAA survey progress map highlighting hydrographic survey coverage by NOAA ships Fairweather and Rainier as of August 17, 2015.


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