NOAA Ship Rainier completes hydrographic surveys in Southeast Alaska

By Ensign Airlie Pickett

In early June of this year, NOAA Ship Rainier headed up the inside passage to Southeast Alaska to conduct hydrographic survey operations in two project areas. The first, Tracy Arm Fjord, is located in the Tongass National Forest and is home to a number of glaciers making it a popular destination for tourists and the cruise ships and sightseeing vessels that carry them. From 2014-2015, a little over two million out-of-state visitors traveled to Alaska, bringing over $4 billion and 39,700 jobs to the state. Nearly half of those visitors arrived via cruise ships (Alaska Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development, 2016).

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Location of Tracy Arm Fjord and Lisianski Inlet in Southeast Alaska.
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Bathymetric data collected by Rainier in Tracy Arm Fjord.

The area was last surveyed in 1974 using only partial-bottom coverage techniques. Since then, technology has improved vastly and complete bottom coverage is now possible. Rainier and her five survey launches are equipped with multibeam echo sounders, which provide a much greater density of soundings, from which a highly detailed 3-dimensional surface can be created.

At the far ends of the Tracy Arm Fjord are two glaciers, the Sawyer Glacier and the South Sawyer Glacier. Satellite imagery (and in-person investigations) reveal that over the past few decades the glaciers have receded significantly, leaving a large area of completely unsurveyed water directly preceding the glaciers.

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Previously unsurveyed area overlaid with an image of Rainier’s newly gathered hydrographic data. At the Sawyer Glacier (left), Rainier collected new hydrographic data approximately .75 miles past the previously surveyed area, and at the South Sawyer Glacier (right), she sailed a full mile into uncharted territory.

The survey was conducted in early summer, and the warm weather made itself known. Both glaciers began to calve in earnest and strong glacial currents and prolific icebergs made this survey operationally challenging. In addition, the high canyon walls of the fjord impeded communications, making it difficult for the ship and her survey launches to maintain contact.

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Two of Rainier’s launches operating in the iceberg laden waters of Tracy Arm Fjord. Credit: Amanda Finn, Survey Technician, NOAA

The data collected from this survey will also be used by glaciologists, providing a highly detailed 3-dimensional view of the path taken by the glacier as it receded. Rainier’s data reveals ridges across the seabed at several points along the fjord.  These features, called moraines, are formed where glacier recession stopped for a period of time.

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A well-defined moraine located just before the junction between the two arms on the east side of the fjord.

 

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Rainier in front of the South Sawyer Glacier. Credit: Ensign Collin Walker, NOAA

The second survey completed by Rainier during this time was in Lisianski Inlet, home to the town of Pelican, population: 88. Lisianski Inlet is a popular location for recreational boaters and yachts as well as being an important route of the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system. The area was last surveyed in 1917 using lead lines. Rainier’s full-bottom coverage using multibeam sonar will greatly enhance the accuracy of local charts and assist local mariners in safe navigation.

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Bathymetric data collected by Rainier in Lisianski Inlet.
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One of Rainier’s Survey launches underway in Lisianski Inlet. Credit: Amanda Finn, Survey Technician, NOAA

 

From NOAA Ship Fairweather to Mt. Fairweather: Commanding officer summits ship’s namesake

By Cmdr. Mark Van Waes, former Commanding Officer of NOAA Ship Fairweather

Mount Fairweather stands tall above Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, dominating the skyline for miles around (when weather permits visibility). Only about 12 miles inshore from the Gulf of Alaska and soaring to 15,325 feet, it is one of the highest coastal peaks in the world.

NOAA Ship Fairweather in the Gulf of Alaska, with Mount Fairweather in the background.
NOAA Ship Fairweather in the Gulf of Alaska, with Mount Fairweather in the background.

Named for the remote mountain peak, NOAA Ship Fairweather surveys the waters of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, making maritime commerce safer, contributing to scientific discovery, and locating lost vessels. The ship, commissioned in 1968 and celebrating 50 years of service to the nation this year, is currently hard at work in Alaska’s Arctic waters to ensure safe navigation for increasing traffic in the region.

Climbers look to the summit of Mount Fairweather.
Climbers look to the summit of Mount Fairweather.

Though I had only ever seen Mount Fairweather from sea (usually on board either NOAA Ship Rainier or Fairweather), I have been drawn to it for years. Since I summited my first mountain (Mount Rainier in 2007), I’d thought that a trip to climb this remote, seldom-climbed peak would be a worthy adventure. I was fortunate that a series of happenstances occurred that made possible an attempt this May. While NOAA Ship Fairweather was docked for mid-season repairs in Juneau, Alaska, I was able to make my way over to Haines, and from there set out with a team of climbers to make a bid for the peak.

The high camp, at an elevation of 10,400 feet on the Grand Plateau Glacier.
The high camp, at an elevation of 10,400 feet on the Grand Plateau Glacier.

Having endured numerous days’ delay due to weather (Captain Cook must have caught the mountain on a good day when he bestowed its name), early in the morning on Tuesday, May 29, we set out from our high camp at 10,400 feet en route to the summit. At 1:16 p.m. Alaska time and after 10 hours of climbing we were standing atop the mountain. With bright sun and clear blue skies overhead and a layer of clouds below at about 9,000 feet, we marveled at the view of peaks, such as Mount Saint Elias and Mount Logan, visible in the distance. It was, as is the attainment of any mountain summit, both an exhilarating and humbling experience.

Cmdr. Van Waes holds the NOAA flag atop the summit of Mount Fairweather
Cmdr. Van Waes holds the NOAA flag atop the summit of Mount Fairweather.

The surveyors of NOAA’s predecessor agency, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, would scale mountains such as these in their work to map the land in which we live. The summit of this mountain forms a corner of the border with British Columbia, and the mountain is the highest point in that Canadian province. Surveying such remote locations to define our nation’s borders was a important part of the work of the hardy folks who served in the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. Though we no longer have the need to do so to the extent that they did in the past, it is interesting and instructive to get an idea of what they had to endure to accomplish the tasks before them.

As a mariner, I had long thought that the vastness of the sea would make anyone feel small. For me, however, it is the mountains that truly help put things in perspective. Their grandeur and ability to inspire awe is unmatched, as is their ability to instill a sense of place. Having spent the majority of my seagoing time aboard the NOAA Ships Rainier and Fairweather, culminating with a command tour aboard Fairweather, climbing these mountains has been a bridge between my time aboard and the history behind the ships. In the fifty years that they have been in service they have been a steady presence in NOAA’s fleet, just as the mountains for which they are named have stood tall above their respective skylines.

 

NOAA researches autonomous survey system in the Arctic

By Rob Downs, Office of Coast Survey unmanned systems projects lead

A team composed of research engineers and a graduate student from the University of New Hampshire Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping/Joint Hydrographic Center (UNH CCOM/JHC) and personnel from NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey are aboard the NOAA Ship Fairweather to test UNH’s BEN (Bathymetric Explorer and Navigator) unmanned surface vehicle (USV). On Saturday, July 28, the Fairweather made the first successful launch of a USV for an operational hydrographic survey from a NOAA vessel in the Arctic. The team conducted four additional deployments, including an extended overnight survey made in coordination with the ship.

The unmanned surface vehicle BEN launched from NOAA Ship Fairweather. Photo by Christina Belton, NOAA.
The unmanned surface vehicle BEN launched from NOAA Ship Fairweather. Photo by Christina Belton, NOAA.

Coast Survey will use the data BEN collects to contribute to Fairweather’s Point Hope survey project. With the support from the Fairweather’s command and crew, the team is operating USV hydrographic surveys in coordination with the ship and its survey launches to explore and develop new operational models with unmanned systems, identify and possibly solve shortcomings in the technology, and provide experience to the ship’s crew in the operations and support of unmanned systems.

The Arctic is well suited to testing unmanned systems because relatively low traffic minimizes the risk of encounters with other vessels. In addition, the expense of conducting hydrographic surveys in such remote areas makes the potential gains in the data acquisition capacity from USVs particularly attractive for NOAA survey ships.

BEN independently follows programmed lines.
BEN independently follows programmed lines.

BEN is manufactured by ASV Global and is significantly larger (13 feet vs. 3 feet), has a much longer endurance (more than 16 hours vs. 6 hours), and is faster (5 knots vs. 2 knots) than the small USVs operated from other NOAA hydrographic survey vessels. BEN is equipped with a standard suite of hydrographic survey equipment and can independently follow planned survey lines at a distance of approximately 5 miles from the ship. The USV can also be remotely driven when alongside the ship for deployment and recovery.

The capabilities of autonomous survey systems are rapidly advancing, and developing autonomous system technology and procedures is a key piece of Coast Survey’s autonomous systems strategy.

 

NOAA surveys the unsurveyed, leading the way in the U.S. Arctic

President Thomas Jefferson, who founded Coast Survey in 1807, commissioned Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery Expedition in 1803, the first American expedition to cross the western portion of the contiguous United States. Today there remains a vast western America territory that is largely unknown and unexplored – the U.S. waters off the coast of Alaska. As a leader in ocean mapping, NOAA Coast Survey launches hydrographic expeditions to discover what lies underneath the water’s surface.

Alaska is one-fifth the size of the contiguous United States, and has more than 33,000 miles of shoreline. In fact, the Alaskan coast comprises 57 percent of the United States’ navigationally significant waters and all of the United States’ Arctic territory. Alaskan and Arctic waters are largely uncharted with modern surveys, and many areas that have soundings were surveyed using early lead line technology from the time of Capt. Cook, before the region was part of the United States. Currently only 4.1 percent of the U.S. maritime Arctic has been charted to modern international navigation standards.

A launch from NOAA Ship Fairweather surveys near ice in the U.S. Arctic.
A launch from NOAA Ship Fairweather surveys near ice in the U.S. Arctic.

In part, Arctic waters are difficult to survey because of the sheets of sea ice persist throughout the majority of the year. Traditionally, thick ice sheets have restricted the number of vessels that travel in the area. But Arctic ice is declining and sea ice melt forecasts indicate the complete loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean as early as two or three decades from now, meaning year-round commercial vessel traffic is likely to increase.

Given the vast expanse of ocean to be charted in the U.S. Arctic, Coast Survey determined charting priorities and coordinated activities in the U.S. Arctic Nautical Charting Plan, the third issue of which was released in August 2016. The plan proposes 14 new charts and was created following consultations with maritime interests, the public, and federal, state, and local governments.

In July and August, the crew aboard the NOAA Ship Fairweather is fulfilling a piece of the U.S. Arctic Nautical Charting Plan as they conduct hydrographic surveys in the vicinity of Cape Lisburne and Point Hope, Alaska. Seventy percent of this area has never been surveyed, while the remaining 30 percent has only lesser bottom coverage from single beam surveys conducted in the early 1960s. The data will be used to produce nautical charts that align with Coast Survey’s new rescheming efforts as stated in the National Charting Plan. This is one of seven hydrographic surveys NOAA has planned in Alaska for 2018. 

The data Coast Survey collects is the first step, as exploration is an iterative process and bathymetric data provides a foundation from which to build. The benefits of surveying extend beyond safe navigation. Accurate seafloor depths are important for forecasting weather, tsunami, and storm surge events that affect local communities. Bathymetric data also informs the discovery of seabed minerals, historic wrecks, and natural resource habitat mapping.

NOAA explores remote Alaskan waters.
NOAA explores remote Alaskan waters.

As with any new endeavor, there is a balance between exploration, safety, environmental conservation, and commerce. Lt. Bart Buesseler is Coast Survey’s regional navigation manager for Alaska and works directly with Alaskan communities, mariners, and port authorities to communicate local needs, concerns, and requests. As many Native Alaskan coastal communities still rely on subsistence hunting of marine mammals, these changes in ice and vessel traffic create a direct impact to their way of life. With that in mind, Lt. Buesseler works with communities and maritime users to identify the priorities that will best support the needs of an area while still addressing the concerns of the communities. It is through this collaboration that the balance between exploration, safety, conservation, and commerce can be achieved.

The Lewis and Clark expedition aimed to map a new territory, learn about the environment, and find a practical land route through the continent. By conducting hydrographic surveys to collect depth measurements of the ocean – and putting those markings on a nautical chart with other navigation information – Coast Survey leads the way for safe maritime passage in the U.S. Arctic.

NOAA Ship Fairweather uses new technology to improve survey efficiency

By ENS Peter Siegenthaler

Following the scheduled winter repair period, Fairweather is kicking off the 2017 field season in Tlevak Strait; the waterway between Dall Island and Prince of Wales Island in Southeast Alaska. This area was last surveyed between 1900 and 1939, and the lead-lines used at the time to determine depths were susceptible to omission of rocks and other features in an area. Using the latest innovations in hydrographic technology, Fairweather will be resurveying these areas with complete coverage multibeam echo sounder bathymetry. This allows Fairweather to identify any rocks or shoal features missed in prior surveys, increasing the safety for local communities, whose economies and livelihoods are dependent on maritime transportation of goods.

One of the new developments Fairweather’s survey department in particular is excited about is a new software program affectionately named “Charlene.” Charlene was developed by PS Eric Younkin at Coast Survey’s Hydrographic Systems and Technologies Branch (HSTB) to automate the night processing workflow. This simplifies hours spent each night converting and correcting raw sonar data into an automated script which takes in raw data at one end and generates products at the other. Initial results are promising, and the ship is looking forward to fully integrating Charlene into the processing workflow.

Another new development for the 2017 field season is new multibeam sonars for the ship’s survey launches, which were installed during the winter repair period. The preliminary data acquired by these sonars has shown vast improvement over their predecessors’ data, which will go a long way towards reducing data processing timelines. The new sonars do this by automating most of the acquisition parameters in real-time, far faster and more effectively than could be achieved manually. They also take advantage of a multitude of hardware and software advances that have taken place over the past several years, resulting in systems that are quieter, smaller, and easier to operate.

Fairweather is continuing to use and develop the launch-mounted lidar systems (lasers) for the acquisition of shoreline data. This was another HSTB-developed process that was validated during the 2016 field season. This year, Fairweather is using those lessons learned in order to further improve our acquisition workflow. These systems create accurate real-time point clouds of features above the waterline and have revolutionized the way hazards to navigation are documented. Before the use of lasers, shoreline verification frequently required physically touching rocks and obstructions above the water surface for accurate measurement and placement. This process involved increased risk, took more time, and produced less accurate data. The new laser workflow addresses all these limitations. By scanning the shoreline at a distance with calibrated equipment, efficiency, accuracy, and safety are all greatly improved.

Overall, Fairweather is enthusiastic about being back at work in Alaska. With her new software, sonar systems, and dedicated crew, the stage is set for and productive field season!

Area surveyed by Fairweather May 30- June 10, 2017.
Area surveyed by Fairweather May 30- June 10, 2017.

NOAA Ship Rainier surveys the waters around Kodiak Island

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Concentration of automatic identification system (AIS) traffic around Kodiak Island. Green is a low concentration, yellow is medium concentration, red is high concentration. Notice the approaches to Port of Kodiak show high traffic.
by ENS Michelle Levano

Kodiak Island is the 2nd largest island in the United States; it is part of the Kodiak Island Archipelago, a group of islands roughly the size of Connecticut. Due to the island’s location in the Gulf of Alaska and North Pacific Ocean, Kodiak is ranked as third in commercial fishing ports in the U.S. in terms of value of seafood landed. In 2015, the Port of Kodiak was responsible for 514 million pounds of fish and $138 million of product. More than one-third of the jobs in Kodiak are related to the fishing industry.

The Port of Kodiak is home to more than 700 commercial fishing vessels, and has more than 650 boat slips and three commercial piers that can dock vessels up to 1,000 feet. In addition to fishing, Kodiak is the hub of the Gulf of Alaska container logistics system, serving the southwest Alaskan communities with consumer goods and outbound access to the world’s fish markets.

In order to access all the Port of Kodiak has to offer, vessels must first travel through Chiniak Bay, which was last surveyed as far back as 1933 via wire drag (see details in the Descriptive Report for the Wire Drag survey of Women’s Bay and St. Paul Harbor).

Today, we are going over the same areas and surveying them utilizing multibeam echo sounders to collect bathymetric soundings that measure the depth of the seafloor.

This year, Rainier is surveying the approaches to Chiniak Bay, covering the following areas: South of Spruce Island, Long Island, Middle Bay, Kalsin Bay, Isthmus Bay, Cape Chiniak, and offshore of Cape Chiniak.

Since arriving on project, Rainier has been busy surveying these areas, confirming what has already been charted, updating with more accurate depths, and finding some new features for the charts along the way!  So far Rainier has patch-tested her launches to ensure survey accuracy, started work on Long Island and Kalsin Bay surveys, and established a global navigation satellite system (GNSS) base station to gain a higher positioning accuracy.

Rainier will continue to survey this area of Kodiak until mid-June. Check back on the Coast Survey blog for more status updates. Interested in visiting the ship? Rainier‘s crew will be offering tours on May 27, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. and May 28, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., at the city pier in downtown Kodiak.

Please contact NOAA Ship Rainier’s public relations officer at michelle.levano@noaa.gov for more information.

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Rainier‘s bathymetric survey coverage since March 29, 2017. The multicolored areas show where Rainer surveyed using multibeam bathymetry. The blue dashed areas show where Rainier intends to survey this year.

Report from the Arctic: Surveying Kotzebue Sound 2015

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.

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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.