New NOAA precision navigation program increases safety, efficiency for maritime commerce

By Capt. Liz Kretovic, Deputy Hydrographer of the Office of Coast Survey

Nowadays, many cars have sensors, video cameras, and other technology installed to help drivers park in tight spaces. Now imagine you are trying to parallel park a tractor-trailer on an icy hill, against a strong crosswind, with millions of dollars of products that depend on your precise execution. Dynamic conditions, tight spaces, and high stakes are exactly the scenario that many commercial vessels face as they move 95 percent of the United States’ foreign trade in and out of U.S. ports and waterways. In a manner comparable to the way car technology supports drivers, NOAA has launched a new program to develop the next generation of marine navigation tools that provide mariners with the information they need to safely and efficiently transport maritime commerce. This next generation of products is referred to as precision navigation.

Mariners face complex decisions as ever-larger vessels make their way through congested U.S. ports.
Mariners face complex decisions as ever-larger vessels make their way through congested U.S. ports.

Precision navigation seamlessly integrates high-resolution bathymetry with real-time and forecast data—such as water levels, currents, salinity, temperature, and precipitation—to produce a stronger decision support tool. As a result, mariners are better equipped to make critical go/no-go decisions. Since precision navigation involves many types and sources of data, it is a well coordinated effort across several NOAA offices, including the Office of Coast Survey, the Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services, the National Geodetic Service, the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System, and the National Weather Service.

This year, NOAA offices involved with precision navigation were awarded additional funding to support foundational program management, and have established a dedicated team that will support the expansion of precision navigation to more ports throughout the country in the coming years. The precision navigation program team includes a program manager, requirements coordinator, and dissemination manager, as well as members from the other involved NOAA offices. In addition, the funding will support a socio-economic study that will look at the return on investment of the precision navigation program and fund a developer to work on the dissemination of NOAA’s data with private industries. Plans are underway to implement precision navigation in the Lower Mississippi River Port Complex as well as in the Port of New York/New Jersey. The program is currently developing a stakeholder engagement strategy to determine needs that can be addressed by precision navigation in these ports.

These new initiatives build on the success of a demonstration project in the Port of Los Angeles/Long Beach, where NOAA and its partners created high resolution depth maps and improved wave prediction, and combined them with water levels from the Physical Oceanographic Real-Time System (PORTS®).  The improved services, integrated into commercial navigation software packages, allowed the port to increase the maximum draft of tankers from 65 feet to 69 feet. Each extra foot of draft translates to an additional $2 million of product per tanker transit. In addition, the increased draft allowance decreased lightering, which saves shippers an estimated $10 million per year. Expanding precision navigation to other high volume ports will reap additional economic benefits for the nation. Private industry beneficiaries of precision navigation include sectors such as the oil and gas industry, port authorities, shipping, fisheries, agriculture, and intermodal transportation networks.

The new NOAA program highlights the importance of public-private partnerships in improving the U.S. maritime transportation system. Precision navigation greatly improves safety and efficiency within the maritime community by reducing the risk of collisions and groundings while allowing vessels carry more goods in a single transit, which means fewer total trips. These benefits to maritime safety, the environment, and the economy will continue to grow as the precision navigation program brings this decision support tool to more ports around the country.

NOAA announces launch of crowdsourced bathymetry database

By Lt. Cmdr. Adam Reed, Integrated Oceans and Coastal Mapping (IOCM) Assistant Coordinator

Today NOAA announces the end of a testing phase in the development of a new crowdsourced bathymetry database. Bathymetric observations and measurements from participants in citizen science and crowdsourced programs are now archived and made available to the public through the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) Data Centre for Digital Bathymetry (DCDB) Data Viewer. The operationalized database allows free access to millions of ocean depth data points, and serves as a powerful source of information to improve navigational products.

The crowdsourced bathymetry database, displayed in the IHO Data Centre for Digital Bathymetry Data Viewer, has an updated user interface.
The crowdsourced bathymetry database, displayed in the IHO Data Centre for Digital Bathymetry Data Viewer, has an updated user interface.

NOAA began database development in 2014 with the IHO Crowdsourced Bathymetry Working Group. The database is part of the IHO DCDB and is hosted at NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), which offers access to archives of oceanic, atmospheric, geophysical, and coastal data. Sea-ID, a maritime technology company, provided early testing and support and is currently working to encourage data contributions from the international yachting community. Ongoing participation from Rose Point Navigation Systems, a provider of marine navigation software, helped kickstart the stream of data from a crowd of mariners.

The crowdsourced bathymetry database now contains more than 117 million points of depth data, which have been used by hydrographers and cartographers to improve chart products and our knowledge of the seafloor. NOAA, working with George Mason University, is using the database depths to assess nautical chart adequacy, determine when areas require updated survey information, and identify chart discrepancies before an incident occurs. The Canadian Hydrographic Service used this dataset to update several charts of the Inside Passage, a network of coastal routes stretching from Seattle, Washington, to Juneau, Alaska.

Data are contributed to the database through a variety of trusted sources (e.g., partner companies, non-profit groups)—referred to as “trusted nodes”—that enable mariners to volunteer seafloor depths measured by their vessels. Contributors have the option to submit their data anonymously or provide additional information (vessel or instrument configuration) that can enrich the dataset. The trusted node compiles the observations and submits them to the crowdsourced bathymetry database, where anyone can access the near real-time data for commercial, scientific, or personal use.

Mariners provided millions of bathymetry data points to the crowdsourced bathymetry database by voluntarily submitting the depth data collected by their vessels.
Mariners provided millions of bathymetry data points to the crowdsourced bathymetry database by voluntarily submitting the depth data collected by their vessels.

NOAA invites maritime companies to support this crowdsourcing effort in their systems by making it simple for users to participate. For example, Rose Point Navigation Systems further promoted the IHO crowdsourced bathymetry initiative by moving the option to collect and contribute bathymetry data to a more visible section of their program options menu.

By submitting crowdsourced bathymetry data, mariners provide a powerful source of information to supplement current bathymetric coverage. Nautical charts need to be updated as marine sediments shift due to storm events, tides, and other coastal processes that affect busy maritime zones along the coast. Crowdsourced bathymetry data helps cartographers determine whether a charted area needs to be re-surveyed, or if they can make changes based on the information at hand. In some cases, crowdsourced bathymetry data can fill in gaps where bathymetric data is scarce, such as unexplored areas of the Arctic and open ocean and also shallow, complex coastlines that are difficult for traditional survey vessels to access. Crowdsourced bathymetry data is also used to identify dangers to navigation, in which case NOAA can issue a Notice to Mariners about the navigation hazard within 24 hours.

The utility of crowdsourced bathymetry data extends beyond the territory of the United States and into international mapping efforts. Seabed 2030 is a global mapping initiative to produce a complete, high-resolution bathymetric map of the world’s seafloor by 2030. GEBCO (which operates under the IHO and International Oceanographic Commission) and the Nippon Foundation launched the initiative in 2017, and received NOAA-wide commitment of resources and support.

Seafloor mapping is integral to many NOAA products, and crowdsourced bathymetric data supports NOAA’s Integrated Oceans and Coastal Mapping (IOCM) initiatives to maximize potential sources and use of mapping data. Crowdsourced efforts are poised to become a major source of information for improving nautical chart coverage and accuracy, and the crowdsourced bathymetry database contributes to national and international seafloor mapping efforts as a growing repository of bathymetric data.

Any mention of a commercial product is for informational purposes and does not constitute an endorsement by the U.S. Government or any of its employees or contractors.

NOAA releases documentary on women’s service in the NOAA Corps

As Women’s History Month draws to a close, NOAA announces the release of Women of the NOAA Corps: Reflections from Sea and Sky, a documentary that highlights the important role women play in the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps.

Women of the NOAA Corps is a 31-minute historical documentary on the lives and stories of ten women in the NOAA Corps service: how they came to the NOAA Corps, their motivations and challenges, and views on their service.

The documentary serves to elevate public understanding and appreciation of the NOAA Corps, particularly women’s service in the Corps, and to inspire the next generation of women in scientific service. The NOAA Corps is one of seven federal uniformed services of the United States, and NOAA Corps officers serve on the sea, on land, and in the air to support NOAA’s environmental science and stewardship mission.

The project was funded through the 2016 NOAA Preserve America Initiative Internal Funding Program.

Rear Adm. Harley Nygren (NOAA ret.) and Cmdr. Pam Chelgren-Koterba (NOAA ret.). Nygren was the first director of the NOAA Corps and penned entry for women to serve. Chelgren was the first woman to join the NOAA Corps in 1972, under Nygren’s leadership.
Rear Adm. Harley Nygren (NOAA ret.) and Cmdr. Pam Chelgren-Koterba (NOAA ret.). Nygren was the first director of the NOAA Corps and penned entry for women to serve. Chelgren was the first woman to join the NOAA Corps in 1972, under Nygren’s leadership.
The production team interviewed two film subjects on location at the Aviation Operation Center in Tampa, Florida. (Left to right) Bob Schwartz (NOAA Office of Communications), Crescent Moegling (Co-Producer; NOAA Office of Coast Survey), Lt. j.g. Shanae Coker (NOAA Corps), Timi Vann (Producer; National Weather Service), and Cmdr. Cathy Martin (NOAA Corps). The team also included Lt. Cmdr. Fionna Matheson as a technical advisor and worked under the leadership endorsement of Rear Adm. Anita Lopez (NOAA ret.).
The production team interviewed two film subjects on location at the Aviation Operation Center in Tampa, Florida. (Left to right) Bob Schwartz (NOAA Office of Communications), Crescent Moegling (Co-Producer; NOAA Office of Coast Survey), Lt. j.g. Shanae Coker (NOAA Corps), Timi Vann (Producer; National Weather Service), and Cmdr. Cathy Martin (NOAA Corps). The team also included Lt. Cmdr. Fionna Matheson as a technical adviser and worked under the leadership endorsement of Rear Adm. Anita Lopez (NOAA ret.).

Update: Fairweather reconnaissance survey finds differences from chart depictions around Point Hope; scientists assess biological and chemical trends in Chukchi Sea

by Ensign Hadley Owen, NOAA, Junior Officer, NOAA Ship Fairweather (S-220)

1200 hours, August 12, 2012:  70°38.7’N  162°06.6’W, approximately 22 miles north of Icy Cape, Alaska’s North Slope

In 1963, the town of Point Hope (68° 21’N  166°46’W) – a small, ancient, and archeologically-significant Inupiaq community on Alaska’s North Slope that remains at present a largely native village – narrowly avoided the creation of an artificial harbor by underwater hydrogen bombs. Part of “Project Plowshare,” the planned creation of a deepwater harbor by thermonuclear power was intended to demonstrate the peaceful use of nuclear power for construction purposes. It was opposed by Native American communities, scientists in the state, and the Episcopalian church across the United States. The protest has been credited as one of the first government projects successfully challenged on the grounds of its potential environmental impact.

Point Hope is just one example of an Arctic Alaskan community for which an increased understanding of the regions oceans and near-coastal areas will prove relevant. From the bathymetry of the coastal region, to the chemical composition of its waters, and the characteristics of its benthic community, studies will document changes in the region due to increased exposure and vessel traffic. The NOAA Ship Fairweather’s current Arctic reconnaissance trip continues to offer that rare opportunity in environmental science – the establishment of “baseline” characteristics of a largely untouched region from which to monitor potentially imminent changes.

In 2008, the USCG Cutter Spar conducted a preliminary hydrographic survey around Point Hope (and other areas), which determined that strong currents in the area were contributing to large shifts in the coastal bathymetry (underwater topography). Sandy sediment and shallow depths, as well as the high level of coastal erosion, have resulted in a significantly changeable nature of the region’s seafloor. Point Hope was one area of interest for this summer’s investigation; on August 8, our ship-based reconnaissance survey of the spit of land’s projection into the ocean showed differences from the area’s charted depiction.

While NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey interest in updating our hydrographic understanding of this region of the Arctic has driven this voyage, we were happy to welcome in Kotzebue a trio of scientists whose work overlapped with and supplemented our own mission. Dr. Doug Dasher, an environmental scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, has had an ongoing interest in Point Hope and related environmental radioactivity studies. He and Terri Lomax, from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, are on board as part of a large-scale survey of biological and chemical trends in the waters of the Arctic Chukchi Sea. Under the Alaska Monitoring and Assessment Program (AKMAP), they are using a stratified random sampling plan over a large area to get the “big picture” of a marine area’s health. Their work supports the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in their national Aquatic Resource Survey of the nation’s waters.

Also onboard is an aquatic toxicologist from NOAA’s National Center for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS), Dr. Ian Hartwell. His path crossed with Dr. Dasher’s several years back in Kachemak Bay on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula (south of Anchorage), where they were both conducting similar research to their present study. Dr. Hartwell’s work is part of NCCOS’ Coastal Ocean Assessment, Status and Trends (COAST) Program, which conducts biological, physical, and chemical assessments of habitats affected – or potentially affected – by contaminants.

Together, they are paying particular interest to a 25 to 30 nautical mile corridor offshore in the Chukchi Sea. The corridor stretches between the Arctic Ocean’s deep-water oil leases, currently being researched and developed by international oil companies, and the largely subsistence native communities of Alaska’s North Slope. The forward-looking exploration of our Fairweather cruise meshes well with AKMAP’s and NCCOS’s goals of defining and describing the relatively untouched environment of the coastal North Slope. In light of increasing maritime traffic, AKMAP and NCCOS hope to monitor potential contamination and help to proactively address future environmental impact upon this still largely untouched Arctic region.