The U.S. Board on Geographic Names recently named four previously unknown basins in the United States Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the Gulf of Mexico, honoring retired NOAA officers who mapped the area in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The names — Armstrong Basin, Floyd Basin, Matsushige Basin and Theberge Basin — were proposed by Texas A&M University, based on their new compilation of bathymetry drawn largely from the NOAA multibeam mapping project conducted by now-decommissioned NOAA ships Whiting and Mt. Mitchell.
A basin in the Gulf of Mexico was named after retired NOAA Captain Andrew Armstrong.
Retired NOAA Capt. Richard P. Floyd was the commanding officer of NOAA Ship Whiting from February 1990 to March 1992; he was followed by retired Capt. Andrew A. Armstrong III, who was CO from February 1992 to January 1994. Retired NOAA Capt. Roy K. Matsushige was commanding officer of NOAA Ship Mt. Mitchell from December 1988 to January 1991, followed by retired Capt. Albert E. Theberge, who served as CO from January to November 1991. The officers led the bathymetric mapping operations under the direction of NOAA’s Office of Charting and Geodetic Services, a predecessor of today’s Office of Coast Survey.
Cartographers rely on the Board of Geographic Names, for good reason!
Since 1890, federal cartographers have relied on the decisions of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names — the 125-year multi-agency federal program to standardize names of geographic features — that operates under the umbrella of the Department of the Interior.
“The Board on Geographic names has its intellectual roots in the earliest map-making efforts,” explains Theberge. To illustrate the need for standardization in the U.S., Theberge points to a November 7, 1805, report by the famed explorer William Clark.
“Ocian in view! O! the joy… Great joy in camp we are in view of the Ocian, this great Pacific Octean which we been So long anxious to See.”
As Theberge points out: “In one sentence, Clark gives the reasons for the Board.”
EEZ mapping project achieved policy and technical objectives for U.S.
The four NOAA commanding officers led surveys for the EEZ mapping project, which was active between 1984 and 1991. The project originated from President Ronald Reagan’s 1983 proclamation establishing a U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone, which created a 200-mile-wide nautical “belt” around the U.S. and territories, adding over 3,000,000 square nautical miles to the nation’s jurisdiction.
In response to the EEZ proclamation, both NOAA and the United States Geological Survey embarked on mapping programs. The USGS used a deep-water, very wide swath, side scan sonar system called GLORIA, which gave a qualitative picture of the seafloor somewhat akin to aerial photography; and NOAA used both medium depth multibeam sounding systems (150 meters to 1000 meters) and deep water systems (1000 meters depth to full oceanic depth), which gave quantitative (depth) values. As opposed to widely-spaced single beam trackline in deep water areas, NOAA’s program attained 100% bottom coverage with the then-new (to the civil community) multibeam systems.
The Gulf of Mexico was one region of the mapping program, as maps were produced for waters of the East Coast, Gulf of Mexico, West Coast, Alaska, and Hawaii. In a paper presented at the 1988 Exclusive Economic Zone Symposium, the goals of mapping in the Gulf of Mexico (actually applicable to all EEZ regions) were espoused:
- Build the foundation of a marine environmental geographic information system for solving global and regional change problems.
- Improve targeting of scientific and engineering efforts involving higher-cost, manned, submersible investigations and remotely-operated vehicle operations.
- Better manage the living and mineral resources of the EEZ.
- Better model the physical oceanography of the Gulf of Mexico, including factors affecting water mass movements, acoustic propagation paths, and sediment transport regimes.
- Model geological and geophysical hazards affecting coastal regions and offshore construction.
- Discover and/or define unique or previously unknown marine environments for designation as marine sanctuaries or protected areas.
- Improve and enhance nautical charts and bathymetric maps.
This early multibeam mapping effort helped develop many concepts that Coast Survey later built on in shallow water multibeam charting, such as methods for correcting and calibrating beam pointing errors, use of GPS, ray-bending algorithms to account for refraction of beams, etc. Philosophically, the project also helped pave the way for the era of digital paperless survey data acquisition and processing, as EEZ survey operations significantly reduced the vast amounts of paper fathograms, printouts, and other products that accompanied classical hydrographic survey operations.
In 1992, a report by the Marine Board of the National Research Council addressed the needs of mapping the EEZ. It noted:
“EEZ mapping and survey activities of the USGS and NOAA have been impressive, especially given the limits on funding, assets, and human resources. …The current activities depend on individual efforts and assets that are, in many instances, borrowed or diverted from other projects.”
By the time the report was written, circumstances — including the grounding of the Queen Elizabeth II in Martha’s Vineyard Sound — dictated that NOAA devote more resources to inshore charting. The EEZ project was terminated but it left a legacy of new and improved methods, as well as a gentle nudge towards a paradigm shift from primarily paper data acquisition to digital data acquisition.
We still use the digital data gathered by the EEZ mapping project. During the monitoring of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, NOAA used the data as its underlying bathymetric dataset. The spill was near Whiting Dome and Mitchell Dome, which were named respectively for their discovery by the NOAA ships Whiting and Mt. Mitchell during the EEZ project.
New project picks up where the EEZ project left off
Today, a new national deep-water bathymetric mapping project is underway, picking up where the EEZ project left off. The Office of Coast Survey’s Joint Hydrographic Center at the University of New Hampshire, along with NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration, is leading the bathymetric mapping work of the interagency U.S. Extended Continental Shelf (ECS) Project. Using today’s modern high-resolution descendants of the multibeam systems aboard Whiting and Mt. Mitchell, the ECS Project the ECS Project is mapping the continental slope in several regions, including the Gulf of Mexico, to establish the outer limits of the U.S. continental shelf in areas beyond the 200 nautical mile EEZ. Andy Armstrong, of recently named Armstrong Basin fame, continues to use his bathymetric mapping expertise, now conducting mapping operations for the ECS Project.
Charts will provide more information on “zone of confidence”
It is a major challenge – some might say an impossibility – to keep all thousand U.S. nautical charts up to date. But exactly how out of date is the chart data? Chart users will get a better idea now that Coast Survey is gradually rolling out a new chart feature called the zone of confidence, or “ZOC” box. It will replace the source diagram that is currently on large-scale charts. Source diagrams, and now the improved ZOC, help mariners assess hydrographic survey data and the associated level of risk to navigate in a particular area.
The first charts to show the new ZOC box are 18622, 18682, 18754, and 11328. They were released on April 7.
Both source diagrams and ZOC diagrams consist of a graphic representation of the extents of hydrographic surveys within the chart and accompanying table of related survey quality categories. Where the old source diagrams were based on inexact and sometimes subjective parameters, however, the new ZOC classifications are derived more consistently, using a combination of survey date, position accuracy, depth accuracy, and sea floor coverage (the survey’s ability to detect objects on the seafloor).
To see the zones of confidence on charts, look for the chart markings (A1, A2, B, C, and D) on the chart itself. Check the ZOC box (located on non-water portions of the chart) for the date of the data acquisition, the position accuracy, the depth accuracy, and characterization of the seafloor for each particular zone.
Why do users need a “zone of confidence?
The age and accuracy of data on nautical charts can vary. Depth information on nautical charts, paper or digital, is based on data from the latest available hydrographic survey, which in many cases may be quite old. In too many cases, the data is more than 150 years old. Sometimes, particularly in Alaska, the depth measurements are so old that they may have originated from Captain Cook in 1778.
Mariners need to know if data is old. They need to understand the capabilities and the limitations of the chart. In particular, the mariner should understand that nautical chart data, especially when it is displayed on navigation systems and mobile apps, possess inherent accuracy limitations.
Before the advent of GPS, the position accuracy of features on a paper chart was more than adequate to serve the mariner’s needs. Twenty years ago, mariners were typically obtaining position fixes using radar ranges, visual bearings, or Loran C. Generally, these positioning methods were an order of magnitude less accurate than the horizontal accuracy of the survey information portrayed on the chart. Back then, Coast Survey cartographers were satisfied when we plotted a fix with three lines of position that resulted in an equilateral triangle whose sides were two millimeters in length at a chart scale of 1:20,000. In real world coordinates, the triangle would have 40-meter sides. Close enough!
Now, with GPS, charted locations that are off by 10 or 15 meters are not nearly close enough. Mariners now expect, just as they did 30 years ago, that the horizontal accuracy of their charts will be at least as accurate as the positioning system available to them. Unfortunately, charts based on data acquired with old survey technologies will never meet that expectation.
Source data is deficient by today’s standards
The overall accuracy of data portrayed on paper charts is a combination of the accuracy of the underlying source data and the accuracy of the chart compilation process. Most nautical charts are made up of survey data collected by various sources over a long time. A given chart might encompass one area that is based on a lead line and sextant hydrographic survey conducted in 1890, while another area of the same chart might have been surveyed in the year 2000 with a full-coverage shallow-water multibeam echo sounder.
In general, federal hydrographic surveys have used the highest standards, with the most accurate hydrographic survey instrumentation available at the time. On a 1:20,000-scale chart, for example, the survey data was required to be accurate to 15 meters. Features whose positions originate in the local notice to mariners, reported by unknown source, are usually charted with qualifying notations like position approximate (PA) or position doubtful (PD). The charted positions of these features, if they do exist, may be in error by miles.
Similarly, the shoreline found on most NOAA charts is based on photogrammetric or plane table surveys that are more than 30 years old.
Another component of chart accuracy involves the chart compilation process. Before NOAA’s suite of charts was scanned into raster format in 1994, all chart compilation was performed manually. Cartographers drew projection lines by hand and plotted features relative to these lines. They graphically reduced large-scale (high-detail) surveys or engineering drawings to chart scale. Very often, they referenced these drawings to state or local coordinate systems. The data would then be converted to the horizontal datum of the chart, e.g., the North American 1927 (NAD27) or the North American Datum 1983 (NAD83). In the late 1980s and early 1990s, NOAA converted all of its charts to NAD83, using averaging techniques and re-drawing all of the projection lines manually.
When NOAA scanned its charts and moved its cartographic production into a computer environment, cartographers noted variations between manually constructed projection lines and those that were computer-generated. They adjusted all of the raster charts so that the manual projection lines conformed to the computer-generated projection.
Many electronic chart positional discrepancies that are observed today originate from the past graphical chart compilation techniques. The manual application of survey data of varying scales to the fixed chart scale was a source of error that often introduced biases. Unfortunately, on any given chart, the magnitude and the direction of these discrepancies will vary in different areas of the chart. Therefore, no systematic adjustment can automatically improve chart accuracy.
Coast Survey is addressing the accuracy problem
NOAA’s suite of over a thousand nautical charts covers 95,000 miles of U.S. coastline, and includes 3.4 million square nautical miles of U.S. jurisdiction within the Exclusive Economic Zone (which is an area that extends 200 nautical miles from shore.) About half of the depth information found on NOAA charts is based on hydrographic surveys conducted before 1940. Surveys conducted with lead lines or single-beam echo sounders sampled a small percentage of the ocean bottom. Due to technological constraints, hydrographers were unable to see between the sounding lines. Depending on the water depth, these lines may have been spaced at 50, 100, 200, or 400 meters. Today, as NOAA and its contractors re-survey areas and obtain full-bottom coverage, we routinely discover previously uncharted features (some that are dangers to navigation). These features were either: 1) not detected on prior surveys; 2) man-made objects, like wrecks and obstructions, that have appeared on the ocean bottom since the prior survey; or 3) the result of natural changes that have occurred since the prior survey.
Coast Survey is also improving our chart production system. As NOAA developed its charts over the centuries, cartographers relied on separate sets of data: one set for traditional paper charts, and another for the modern electronic navigational charts. We are currently integrating a new charting system that will use one central database to produce all NOAA chart products. The new chart system slims down the system while it beefs up performance, speeding new data and updates to all chart versions of the same charted areas and removing inconsistencies.
As always, NOAA asks chart users to let us know when you find an error on a NOAA chart. Just go to the discrepancy reporting system, give us your observation, and we will take it from there.
Coast Survey published its earliest version of the United States Coast Pilot in 1858, as Appendix No. 44 in Coast Survey’s Annual Report. The publication, organized into nine regional volumes, provides navigational information that can’t fit on nautical charts.
The U.S. Coast Pilot has gone through many iterations over the last 158 years. In the last century, we’ve added more information and added color to the historically black and white copy. More recently, we began posting book files on the web for easy download. We have now taken the next major step, enabled by interactive digital technology, to give boaters an enhanced and more accessible product. (Please note, the improved version is not mobile-friendly. You should use a tablet or larger screen.)
Breakthroughs in digital editing and publishing have allowed us to produce the U.S. Coast Pilot in a digital format called extensible markup language (XML). People won’t notice a difference from the original format — it looks the same as the paper copy — but the online version has some neat interactive features. To find them, go to the U.S. Coast Pilot, select your volume, and then click on a chapter in the left hand HTML column.
This new version of the U.S. Coast Pilot is formatted for reading on the web. Certain place names and objects, highlighted in green, are now directly view-able on a nautical chart and linked to entries in the official U.S. Geographic Names database. Some other features include:
- images that embiggen when clicked;
- an interactive table of contents for each book; and
- raster nautical chart links (highlighted in light blue) that can be viewed with each section in the book.
This screen grab of Coast Pilot’s HTML version shows the links to nautical charts, geotags to place names, and links to federal regulations.
Coast Survey updates the Coast Pilot weekly, and now readers can see where we made changes. The system automatically highlights changes (in gray), and retains those highlights until the next annual version is published. (The print-on-demand paper copy contains all updates made up to the time of printing.) The annual versions are published on a staggered yearly schedule.
Contact email@example.com with any questions or comments about the Coast Pilot, the format, downloads, or XML code.
Among women trailblazers, there is one who may not be sufficiently recognized: Maria Mitchell, the first female professional employed by Coast Survey. March is Women’s History Month, so it is especially appropriate to introduce this extraordinary woman to the Coast Survey audience.
According to the National Women’s History Museum, Mitchell “probably was the first woman employed in a professional capacity by the federal government. Although women had been hired as cooks, laundresses, etc., her 1849 employment appears to be the first case of a woman earning an annual salary for work based on knowledge of an academic field.”
August 1, 1818 – June 28, 1889
Actually, Coast Survey records indicate that she began her Coast Survey career in August 1845, when the agency hired her as an astronomic observer, based in Nantucket. Coast Survey Superintendent Alexander Dallas Bache asked Marie and her father, William Mitchell, to assist in observations associated with a project to establish a cardinal point for latitude and longitude for the United States and North America. Records indicate that Bache paid her $300 a year.
Retired NOAA Captain Albert “Skip” Theberge has woven Maria Mitchell’s story into his history of the U.S. Coast Survey.
“Bache’s progressive, although somewhat tight-fisted, views on managing personnel led to the Coast Survey being the first federal agency to hire women for professional work both within its ranks as permanent personnel and on a contract basis. The astronomer, Maria Mitchell of Nantucket, was the pioneer in this radical departure from custom,” Theberge writes.
Maria distinguished herself from the outset. On January 15, 1846, William Mitchell wrote to Bache, “I may say then that about all the moon culminations, since Loomis left us, have been taken (when visible) except through a part of one lunation, when Maria and myself were absent at Worcester. Maria alternates with me in these with a zeal (shall I also say skill?) very gratifying to an old man.”
On October 1, 1847, Maria used a telescope to discover a comet. “Her discovery was a major step in establishing her fame as the foremost nineteenth century woman scientist in the United States,” Theberge observes.
People today might find it strange to discover that there was actually an internal agency debate on whether to publicize Maria Mitchell’s association with the Coast Survey. Her own father wrote to Bache in 1848, expressing fear that some of the less enlightened members of Congress might note “…why, he employs a woman what a waste of money.”
Fortunately, Bache was not swayed by such concerns. He wrote a congratulatory note to “the lady astronomer in whose fame I take personal pride as having in some degree helped to foster the talent which has here developed… We congratulate the indefatigable comet-seeker on her success; is she not the first lady who has ever discovered a comet? The Coast Survey is proud of her connection with it…”
Phebe Kendall Mitchell, Maria Mitchell’s sister, picks up Maria’s history:
“In 1849 Miss Mitchell was asked by the late Admiral Davis [Charles Henry Davis], who had just taken charge of the American Nautical Almanac, to act as computer for that work, – a proposition to which she gladly assented, and for nineteen years she held that position in addition to her other duties… In this year, too, she was employed by Professor Bache, of the United States Coast Survey, in the work of an astronomical party at Mount Independence, Maine.” (Kendall, P.M. 1896. Maria Mitchell Life, Letters, and Journals. p. 24. Lee and Shepard Publishers, Boston.)
New data will update nautical charts around the country
As sure as spring arrives, NOAA vessels and independent contractors are hitting the seas for the nation’s 182nd hydrographic surveying season, collecting data for over two thousand square nautical miles in high-traffic U.S. coastal waters.
NOAA Ship Ferdinand Hassler heads out to survey.
“Nautical charts are the foundation for the nation’s maritime economy, and NOAA hydrographers spend months at sea, surveying critical areas to ensure safe navigation for the shipping, fishing, and boating communities,” said Rear Admiral Gerd Glang, director of the Office of Coast Survey.
“Spring is the traditional beginning of the survey season,” Glang explained. “After a winter of data processing, ship maintenance, and personnel refresher training, the NOAA survey ships and Coast Survey navigation response teams are anxious to get to their survey assignments.”
U.S. waters cover 3.4 million square nautical miles, including a seafloor that is constantly changing due to storms, erosion, and development. To keep the nation’s suite of over a thousand nautical charts up to date, the Office of Coast Survey annually plans hydrographic survey projects to measure water depths and identify new navigational hazards. Survey planners consider requests by marine pilots, port authorities, the Coast Guard, the boating community and others when setting the year’s schedule.
Planned 2016 survey projects
- Penobscot Bay, Maine, most of which hasn’t been surveyed since the 1950s, will get its first modern NOAA multibeam echo sounder survey, to acquire data for needed chart updates.
- Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, is the subject of a multiyear project for updating charts. 2016 is the third year, and the survey ship will validate U.S. Geological Survey interferometric survey data for charting, and will align with NOAA’s Remote Sensing Division lidar data.
- Chesapeake Bay is also the subject of a multiyear survey project for updating charts. NOAA Ship Ferdinand R. Hassler will work offshore, while launches from NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson will survey in the vicinity of Hampton Roads concurrent to the ship’s maintenance period in drydock.
- Wilmington, North Carolina, survey project will support the U.S. Coast Guard Atlantic Coast Port Access Route Study.
- Savannah, Georgia, needs hydrographic survey data for the port deepening project in preparation for post-Panamax ships.
- Sabine, Louisiana, will have a continuation of last year’s project to survey part of the approaches to Port Arthur and Calcasieu.
- Atchafalaya, Louisiana, will have a continuation of last year’s project to survey part of the approaches to Morgan City.
- Approaches to SW Pass, Louisiana, will be surveyed at the request of the U.S. Coast Guard and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, to provide new chart data for consideration of a proposed anchorage area near Port Fourchon.
- Chandeleur Sound, Mississippi, will have surveys to acquire critical updates since Hurricane Katrina.
- Yukon River, Alaska, will be partially surveyed to validate a new charting approach using satellite-derived bathymetry.
- Etolin Strait, Alaska, will also validate satellite-derived bathymetry data, as well as establish a survey corridor between Nunivak Island and mainland Alaska. This project will provide data for some of the new charts identified in the U.S. Arctic Nautical Charting Plan.
- Dutch Harbor, Alaska, will benefit from a shore-based survey operation simultaneous with a NOAA Fishpac project, as the ship’s smaller launches will acquire more data at the site of the 2015 M/V Fennica grounding.
- Kodiak Island, Alaska, will have another year of a multi-year surveying campaign in this critical area for increasing fishing and tourism.
- Prince of Wales Island, Alaska, needs updated survey data to improve charts to Tlevak Strait, expanding to Sukkwan Strait and Howkan Narrows.
- Behm Canal, Alaska, will get its third (and final) year of survey work to circumnavigate Revillagigedo Island as well as George and Carol Inlet, Alaska.
The surveys will be conducted by NOAA’s four dedicated survey ships ‒ Thomas Jefferson, Ferdinand Hassler, Rainier, and Fairweather ‒ and private companies that survey on a contract basis with NOAA. The NOAA ships are operated and maintained by the Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, with hydrographic survey projects managed by the Office of Coast Survey.
The schedule for Coast Survey’s navigation response teams (NRTs), 3-person boats that work closer in shore to acquire data for nautical chart updates, was announced earlier.
As a responsible boater, you examine your nautical chart before sailing, determined to avoid problems during a nice trip along the coast. Charts are packed with symbols and abbreviations, so you might refer to the free copy of U.S. Chart No. 1, which lists all of the symbols used on NOAA nautical charts. It is an excellent quick reference for identifying unfamiliar symbols.
However, sometimes mariners need a deeper understanding…
Coast Survey is now providing additional information about complex or particularly confusing chart symbols to augment what is available in U.S. Chart No. 1. The first two tip sheets are available now. Coast Survey will add more chart symbology tip sheets to the U.S. Chart No. 1 webpage as the need arises.
Understanding NOAA chart symbology
Fish havens: The typical U.S. Chart No. 1 entry, such as this one for fish haven, lists only the name and the symbols. The tip sheet explains what fish havens are, what they look like in context with other charted features, and what restrictions may apply to them.
Anchorages and harbors of refuge: The anchor symbol has been used for decades to represent an anchorage on U.S. nautical charts, but the specific meaning of the symbol has evolved over the years. The tip sheet explains what the symbol means now – and, perhaps more importantly, what it doesn’t mean.
Questions or suggestions? Email USChart1@noaa.gov.