NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson presents survey work to Puerto Rico South Coast stakeholders

By Cmdr. Chris van Westendorp, Commanding Officer of NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson

Almost one year following the passage and destruction of Hurricane Maria, NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson has returned to Puerto Rico. Following the storm, Thomas Jefferson deployed in September 2017 for hydrographic hurricane response work in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands (PR/USVI). The ship and crew surveyed 18 individual port facilities to ensure safety of navigation and help re-open the region for maritime commerce. Thomas Jefferson’s second major project of 2018 has brought the ship back to Puerto Rico from August to November, conducting follow-up survey work along the north and south coasts.

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NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson recovering hydrographic survey launch 2904 on September 7, 2018, in Bahia de Guayanilla, Puerto Rico. The vast majority of Thomas Jefferson’s 2017 and 2018 survey work in and around Puerto Rico was completed with the ship’s survey launches.

While anchored in Bahia de Guayanilla, Cmdr. Chris van Westendorp, commanding officer of Thomas Jefferson, was invited by the Puerto Rico South Coast pilots to speak at a South Coast Harbor Safety & Security Committee meeting in Salinas. Attended quarterly by area commercial, federal, and local maritime stakeholders, each meeting features presentations on a variety of topics such as harbor safety and preparedness, maritime security, and relevant oceanographic research (e.g. PR SeaGrant, PR Climate Change Commission).

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Cmdr. van Westendorp presents preliminary survey results to the Puerto Rico South Coast Harbor Safety & Security Committee from Thomas Jefferson’s 2018 hydrographic survey project in San Juan, Ponce, and vicinities, Puerto Rico.

Several presentations discussed ongoing Hurricane Maria recovery efforts, and conversations with attendees emphasized that storm effects still permeate businesses and the island economy. The meeting also revealed the existence of strong interagency relationships in the group, reflective of South Coast culture. These connections enable close and effective collaboration of agencies such as NOAA, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and SeaGrant, in supporting the region’s environmental resources, economy, and security, as well as forming improved hurricane preparedness and response plans.

Accompanied by Coast Survey Atlantic Hydrographic Branch’s Julia Wallace (ERT), Cmdr. van Westendorp presented on nautical hydrography, including an outline of the ship’s 2017 post-Maria work, as well as current project plans and preliminary results. During and after the presentation, attendees showed particular interest in survey results in and around Guayanilla, Ponce, Jobos, Las Mareas, and Yabucoa; port areas previously identified by the South Coast pilots as critical for local and island-wide economies alike.  The Coast Guard Captain of the Port (based in San Juan) and his staff also engaged Cmdr. van Westendorp and Julia Wallace in conversations regarding the allocation and positioning of survey capabilities in preparation for major storm events in the PR/USVI region.

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From left to right: Capt. Alex Cruz (South Coast pilot and vice chairman, South Coast Harbor Safety & Security Committee [SCHSSC]), Cmdr. Chris van Westendorp (commanding officer, Thomas Jefferson), Capt. Eric King (Coast Guard Sector San Juan Captain of the Port), Mr. Luis Torres (Chairman, SCHSSC)
A year after the devastation of Maria, it is clear that Thomas Jefferson’s presence and ongoing work are gratefully received by and worthwhile to the people of Puerto Rico.

NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson completes 2018 survey work in the Approaches to Houston-Galveston

By Lt. Charles Wisotzkey

NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson departed the western Gulf of Mexico in early August 2018 after completing scheduled survey operations on the Approaches to Houston project. Data collected for the project will update nautical charts for the approaches to the main shipping channel leading to the ports of Houston and Galveston.

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Thomas Jefferson‘s project area located southeast of the entrance to Galveston Bay.

The Port of Houston is the largest U.S. port in terms of foreign trade and petroleum products. The main shipping channel extends from Houston, down the Buffalo Bayou, through Galveston Bay, and into the Gulf of Mexico at the pass between Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula. The approaches to Galveston Bay are heavily trafficked by all manner of commercial vessels. In fact, the anchorages outside of the entrance to Galveston Bay were among the busiest traffic areas the ship’s command had experienced.

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Automatic Identification System (AIS) traffic near the entrance to Galveston Bay. Each red, green, and blue symbol represents a separate vessel. Most of the offshore AIS symbols represent, in this instance, large commercial vessels (MarineTraffic 2018).
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A closer look at Thomas Jefferson‘s project area highlights its navigational characteristics.

Multiple safety fairways and numerous oil platforms with pipeline infrastructure are shown in the image above. The safety fairways are kept clear of oil and gas infrastructure and are used by large commercial traffic to transit around the Gulf of Mexico; however, obstructions are sometimes reported and charted within the bounds of the safety fairways. 

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An example of an abnormal traffic situation caused by the presence of position approximate (PA) obstructions in the safety fairway that leads into the entrance to Galveston Bay.

The image above shows two charted position approximate (PA) obstructions within the safety fairway to the south of Thomas Jefferson’s main project area. As seen in the image, two vessels favor the north side of the safety fairway in order to avoid the charted PA obstructions and passing nearer to each other than would otherwise be prudent. In this case, both PA obstructions were disproved by Thomas Jefferson and will be removed from the chart.

Overall, the Approaches to Houston project was highly successful. Thomas Jefferson was able to collect over 9,500 linear nautical miles and more than 500 square nautical miles of survey data. In addition to the two PA obstructions described previously, Thomas Jefferson corrected the position of five navigationally significant wrecks and obstructions, disproved the existence of one additional navigationally significant charted obstruction, identified two previously uncharted wrecks, provided updated Aid to Navigation data to the U.S. Coast Guard, and located numerous uncharted and/or exposed pipelines. This work will improve chart quality for an area of critical importance to our nation’s economy.

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The crew of the Thomas Jefferson, along with local Houston/Galveston NOAA partners, shared the positive impact of the ship’s work at a successful public relations event in Galveston, Texas, in July. From left to right: Ensign Sydney Catoire (Thomas Jefferson), Charles Rowland (Navigation Response Branch (NRB)), Alan Bunn (NOAA navigation manager), Erin Diurba (NRB), Katie Magee (National Weather Service (NWS)), Sarah Randall (NWS), Dan Jacobs (NRB), and Cmdr. Chris Van Westendorp (CO Thomas Jefferson). 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Everyday actions keep mariners safe aboard NOAA hydrographic survey vessels

Collecting bathymetric data for our nation’s nautical charts requires skilled work on the water. Whether survey data is actively being collected or the ship is transiting to its next destination, NOAA crews perform a number of ancillary tasks as they operate NOAA hydrographic ships 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Atmospheric and ecological observations provide context for the crew so they can avoid dangerous situations, while also supporting NOAA environmental databases and records. Drills and training are necessary to keep people and property safe. Below are some of the actions the mariners take while they are aboard the vessel:

1. Emergency drills – The crew regularly practices fire, man overboard, and abandon ship scenarios. Each drill is taken very seriously. For example, smoke and fog machines add realism to the fire drills. Each crew member has an assigned role to carry out for each type of emergency, and someone takes notes about the effectiveness of the first responders, firefighters, medical group, and central communications team. Following the drill, the executive officer of the ship leads a debrief so that the crew can receive feedback and discuss areas of improvement.

Video: NOAA crew members rescue a mannequin during a man overboard drill.

2. Position – While in motion, it is vital to know where the ship is, what direction it is heading, and where it will be moving next. To accomplish this, the team on the bridge takes position measurements every 15 minutes near landmasses and 30 minutes further from land. There are three ways to determine the position of the ship – using the Global Positioning System (GPS), using radar, or triangulating the position using an alidade (compass) to collect the bearings of landmarks. The measurements serve as a check for the ship’s GPS reading. In addition, the crew attends regular navigational meetings where the navigation officer shows the intended ship path and discusses any points to note such as narrow passageways, heavy traffic areas, and upcoming weather forecasts.

3. Watches – There is always someone on watch when a ship is transiting or surveying. To supplement the information collected by radar, the lookout uses binoculars to detect debris, other ships, shallow areas, and marine wildlife. If necessary, the crew adjusts the course of the ship to avoid entangling equipment or harming the ship or wildlife. In addition, daily observations of marine mammals are reported to the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service.

A NOAA Corp officer watches for hazards to navigation on board NOAA Ship Fairweather.
A NOAA Corp officer watches for hazards to navigation on board NOAA Ship Fairweather.

4. Training – Training helps the crew keep their navigation and emergency response skills sharp. Medical persons in charge (MPICs) act as the medical first responders on the ship and receive training on CPR, giving shots, and medical emergency protocols. They also attend informational sessions on topics of interest such as diabetes and transmitted diseases.

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NOAA crew practice deploying a launch boat from NOAA Ship Fairweather.

The navigation team practices skills like docking and undocking the ship, maneuvering in tight spaces, and lowering and raising launch boats. These drills are important ways for junior NOAA Corps officers to gain operational skills. To help new officers learn the basics, the executive officer of NOAA Ship Fairweather designed a video game where a person can issue commands to teammates who control the bow thrusters, engines, and rudders of an imaginary ship. The game has several challenging levels where players can practice their communication skills while getting a sense of how the boat might respond while docking, turning, or moving in rough environmental conditions.

5. Environmental conditions – The crew keeps track of the air pressure to detect upcoming storm systems. They observe and record cloud type and cover, wave and swell height and direction, and temperature. These measurements are recorded every hour while the ship is moving and are reported to the NOAA National Weather Service every four hours.

The information and training the crew obtains are vital pieces of the research vessel’s operation. By collecting environmental data and honing their skills, the crew ensures they safely navigate U.S. waters and perform their mission.