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).

rainier1
Location of Tracy Arm Fjord and Lisianski Inlet in Southeast Alaska.
rainier2
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.

rainier3
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.

rainier4
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.

rainier5
A well-defined moraine located just before the junction between the two arms on the east side of the fjord.

 

rainier6
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.

rainier7
Bathymetric data collected by Rainier in Lisianski Inlet.
rainier8
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 and Coast Guard survey shallow channels in eastern Chesapeake Bay to update aids to navigation

By Lt j.g. Patrick Debroisse

The area of the Chesapeake Bay along the Eastern Shore of Maryland is one of our nation’s treasures. Home to unique underwater grasses, fish, and shellfish, this complex transition from river to sea is also home to millions of tons of sediment delivered annually from eroding land and streams. Recreational boaters, fisherman, and cruising vessels are keenly aware of the shifting sands and sediment deposits in these shallow waters and rely on aids to navigation (ATON) — a system of beacons and buoys — to travel safely to and from the harbors and docks along the shoreline.

U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) Aids to Navigation Team (ANT) from Crisfield, Maryland, recently requested the assistance of NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey to help identify areas where ATON were in need of repair, relocation, or removal due to the shifting sediment of these nearshore areas. Crew from NOAA research vessel Bay Hydro II and from navigation response team (NRT) 1 (homeported in Stennis, Mississippi) operated an Echoboat autonomous surface vehicle (ASV) from a USCG vessel to survey these shallow waters. 

Lt j.g. Patrick Debroisse readies the Echoboat ASV for hydrographic survey
Lt j.g. Patrick Debroisse (NOAA, junior officer in charge, Bay Hydro II) readies the Echoboat ASV for hydrographic survey in the nearshore waters of the Chesapeake Bay.
Alex Ligon (NOAA NRT1) works with USCG Boatswain Mate (BM) 1 Lee Durfee, BM2 Collin Blugis, and Machinery Technician 3 Matt Kemp to load the ASV on the USCG vessel.
Alex Ligon (NOAA, NRT 1) works with USCG Boatswain Mate (BM) 1 Lee Durfee, BM 2 Collin Blugis, and Machinery Technician 3 Matt Kemp to load the ASV on the USCG vessel.

The team first visited Slaughter Creek, near Taylor’s Island, where the USCG believed sediment in the channel was shifting, requiring potential ATON relocation. The second area was in Pocomoke River, east of Smith Island, where shoaling in the already shallow channel was of concern, as well as the existence of unused ATON anchors. The ASV, equipped with side scan sonar to search for underwater objects, and a multibeam echo sounder to check the contours of the channels, surveyed both areas.

Once the survey data is processed and delivered to the USCG ANT, they can make informed decisions about ATON maintenance. Finding old ATON anchors and recycling them back into service is a potential cost savings for the USCG. NOAA and the USCG plan to operate the Echoboat ASV in this area again, surveying the waters for a possible wreck in Fishing Bay and for old ATON moorings replaced by a day shape.

Echoboat ASV surveys in the Pocomoke River Channel to investigate possible shoaling.
Echoboat ASV surveys in the Pocomoke River channel to investigate possible shoaling.
Alex Ligon (NOAA NRT 1) watches the ASV data in real-time. The ability to watch the data real time allows real-time decision making for survey planning and preliminary products to be provided to the Coast Guard ANT.
Alex Ligon (NOAA, NRT 1) watches the ASV data in real-time, which allows for real-time decision making for survey planning and preliminary products.

Coast Survey recently surveyed the waters of Lake Champlain using the Echoboat ASV.  This portable unit provides flexibility and allows survey teams to further develop procedures and to train more individuals in its use for future operations around the country.

Crew of NOAA Ship Rainier surveys Everett, Washington, to update charts

By Lt. j.g. Michelle Levano
everett1
RA-6 in Elliott Bay, downtown Seattle. Photo Credit: Lt. Andrew Clos

As NOAA Ship Rainier underwent repairs in South Seattle, the ship’s survey launches and their crews carried out a project to update nautical charts around the Port of Everett and its approaches in Possession Sound. The boats used state-of-the-art positioning and multibeam echo sounder systems to achieve full bottom coverage of the seafloor.

The ports of Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett have experienced an increase in vessel traffic and capacity within the last decade. The Port of Everett serves as an international shipping port bringing jobs, trade, and recreational opportunities to the city. Across Possession Sound, Naval Station Everett is the homeport for five guided-missile destroyers, and two U.S. Coast Guard cutters. The data collected from this project will support additional military traffic transiting to and from Naval Base Kitsap in addition to the Washington State Ferries’ Mukilteo/Clinton ferry route, commercial and tribal fishing, and recreational boating in the area.

everett2
From left to right: Hydrographic Senior Survey Technician (HSST)  Barry Jackson, Hydrographic Assistant Survey Technician (HAST) Amanda Finn, HSST Gregory Gahlinger, HAST Jonathan Witmer, Able Bodied Seaman Tyler Medley, HAST Carl Stedman, Lt. j.g. Michelle Levano, NOAA, and Lt Andrew Clos, NOAA, in Everett at the start of the project. Photo Credit: Lt. j.g. Michelle Levano

Some areas of the charts outside of Everett are based on data acquired between 1940 and the 1960s, a time when sonar technology did not allow acquisition of full bottom coverage. Complete multibeam coverage will provide mariners with modern, highly accurate information on shoals, rocks, and intertidal mudflat locations. During the first week of May, a team of nine Rainier crew members moved four survey launches from Lake Washington, where Rainier was docked, to Everett. The team, consisting of wardroom, survey, and deck department members, conducted 17 days of survey.

During this project, Rainier trained several individuals to become qualified hydrographers in charge and/or launch coxswains. Much of the multibeam acquisition in the Everett project was more gradual and shallow compared to the “steep and deep” coastline of Alaska that Rainier is more accustomed to seeing. This served as a perfect place for individuals to increase confidence and capability after a long winter repair period.

In addition to updating depth data, the Rainier survey team updated chart symbology information found on paper and electronic navigational charts of the area. Some examples of chart symbology include rocks, kelp beds, aids to navigation, traffic separation schemes, and other man-made and natural features. Traditionally, chart features are positioned using the ship’s 19-foot outboard skiffs. Equipped with a GPS positioning unit, the skiffs carefully approach a charted or new feature, and get as close as safely possible to determine the location and height. The Port of Everett contains many man-made shoreline features such as pilings, docks, and breakwater which are ideal for using a topographic laser to collect feature attribution.

everett3
HSST Barry Jackson, HAST Jonathan Witmer, and Lt. Andrew Clos, NOAA, take RA-2 out for maneuvering training before starting the laser. Photo Credit: HAST Carl Stedman

For this project, the team used Rainier’s relatively new jet-propelled boat, RA-2, that is equipped with lidar. Using sixteen laser beams, light reflects off an object and is detected by a receiver; similar to how the sonar is used to find objects on the seafloor. Topographic laser feature attribution allows the surveyor to locate and place these features accurately with height information combined with precise positioning and orientation (roll, pitch, and yaw of the vessel) data.

The crew to gained experience and developed procedures using laser technology for feature positioning and height, which is safer for the crew than previous collection methods. Now, survey crews can collect highly accurate feature information from a distance. This experience, training, and procedure development was an important component of preparation for upcoming fieldwork in Alaska where the rocky and rugged Alaskan coastline experiences a large tidal range and contains many features that must be correctly identified and positioned. Rainier’s survey team received support on this project from NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey’s Hydrographic Systems and Technologies Branch, which provided additional training on lidar use and data processing.

Stay tuned for future Rainier survey updates as she heads north to survey Tracey Arm outside of Juneau, Alaska, and the ship’s adventures in California later this summer!

everett4
Area surveyed for approaches to Everett.

Rainier would like to thank the Port of Everett for accommodating the ship’s launches throughout the duration of this survey project.

NOAA surveys Lake Champlain for improved flood modeling and mitigation strategies

At the request of the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab (GLERL), NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey deployed a survey team and a new autonomous surface vehicle (ASV) to gather hydrographic data in and around the narrow causeway inlets that dot the Lake Champlain basin in Vermont. GLERL will use the data to improve flood forecast models and analyze flood mitigation strategies in the Lake Champlain-Richelieu River system as part of a U.S. and Canada study led by the International Joint Commission.

image1
Navigation response team (NRT) members watch from the launch vessel as a new autonomous surface vehicle, the Echoboat, surveys shallow waters in Lake Champlain. The Coast Survey team included Mike Annis from headquarters and Alex Ligon and Josh Bergeron from NRT1 (Stennis, Mississippi) to support the ASV operations, as well as Lt. j.g. Dylan Kosten, Eli Smith, and Michael Bloom of NRT5 (New London, Connecticut) to provide additional support.

Lake Champlain drains northward to the St. Lawrence River (via the Richelieu River) and is part of the Great Lakes system. In 2011, the lake reached record water levels due to large amounts of spring precipitation, snowmelt, and runoff. This water caused more than 60 consecutive days of severe flooding that affected thousands of U.S. and Canadian residents.

To gather hydrographic data that will improve lake modeling and forecasting going forward, a Coast Survey navigation response team (NRT) deployed a Seafloor Systems Echoboat to survey areas of the basin that are too shallow for traditional survey vessels to reach. In this way, the ASV acted as a force multiplier to the NRT survey vessel. Coast Survey acquired the Echoboat earlier this year, and it is Coast Survey’s first ASV to be equipped with multibeam sonar—the same type of sonar that larger NOAA survey vessels use to gather high resolution hydrographic data. With the use of this technology, the data gathered by the ASV system may be included on NOAA navigational products.

 

Video: The new autonomous surface vehicle, the Echoboat, surveys shallow waters in Lake Champlain. 

 

This was the inaugural operational use of the Echoboat, and allowed the team to gain experience setting up, running, and maintaining the ASV. Identifying and addressing software and hardware issues now prepares the team for future deployments.

image2
Survey data of a causeway in Lake Champlain collected by the ASV (in the green polygon) and the NRT survey vessel.

Prior to the survey, much of the hydrographic data for Lake Champlain was well over 100 years old and of sparse density. Developers at GLERL needed more detailed hydrographic information in several shallow water areas in the northern sections of the lake to complete hydrodynamic models. Lake Champlain is a complex system populated with islands spread across multiple basins, many of which are connected by bridges and causeways. Critical to the flow of water between the different basins of the lake are multiple narrow, shallow inlets bisecting these causeways. The survey dataset Coast Survey delivered to GLERL is key to knowing the volume of water that flows through these bottlenecks in order to model circulation, water levels, and the resulting floods in the lake.