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.

 

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

By Lt. j.g. Michelle Levano
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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

Coast Survey spotlight: Meet Starla Robinson


Ever wonder what it’s like to be a member of the NOAA Coast Survey team? We will use the Coast Survey spotlight blog series as a way to periodically share the experiences of Coast Survey employees as they discuss their work, background, and advice.


Starla Robinson, Physical Scientist

“The work we do has real value and every sounding takes a team of professionals from multiple disciplines. I like being a part of something greater.”

Starla Robinson served as a crew member on the NOAA Ship Rainier. Photo credit: Lt. Damian Manda, NOAA Corps
Starla Robinson served as a crew member on NOAA Ship Rainier. Photo credit: Lt. Damian Manda, NOAA Corps
What were your experiences prior to working for NOAA Office of Coast Survey?

I worked a decade as a GIS Analyst and then four years as a Survey Technician on NOAA Ship Rainier. I have been working as a Physical Scientist for Coast Survey for three years, and in this position I plan hydrographic surveys.

What is a day in your job like?

Varied. I am a project manager. My responsibility is to plan surveys, identify risks and opportunities, and see the surveys through completion. I spend time on land researching existing data, analyzing opportunities, facilitating communication, and defining plans. Once a project is started I assist in answering questions, monitoring progress, and communicating the value of what we do.

I also have the great privilege to sail on our ships as both a project manager and survey crew. At sea I act as a liaison to land, maintain my skills, experiment with new methods, and stand a survey watch. Working on a ship allows me to see things that very few people get to see. We are explorers in a strange land, uncovering an environment no one has seen before.

Why is this work important?

Project managers are the opportunity makers and the communicators that stitch the team together for the execution of the surveys that maintain the nation’s charts. We get to be the experts, defining the requirements for national hydrography, and safeguarding quality, while making sure we effectively manage the taxpayer’s resources.

What aspects of your job are most rewarding to you?

I work with teams of brilliant, dedicated professionals who are passionate about our work. Our work provides me with a sense of purpose. I know the importance of our data to mariners. I have been in a ship looking for safe harbor. I know the importance of our data to commerce, fisheries, habitat analysis, offshore energy, sand mining, and resource management. I use my expertise in hydrography and GIS to answer questions and strategize for the future. The work we do has real value and every sounding takes a team of professionals from multiple disciplines. I like being a part of something greater.


We are celebrating World Hydrography Day all week! Check our website to see new hydrography- and bathymetry-related stories added each day.

NOAA ships Fairweather and Rainier mark 50 years of service and survey

 

NOAA ships Rainier and Fairweather.
NOAA ships Rainier (left) and Fairweather (right) alongside at Marine Operations Center – Pacific in Newport, Oregon.

To recognize the successful history of NOAA ships Fairweather and Rainier, as well as the professional mariners, hydrographers, and commissioned officers who have served aboard these ships for the last 50 years, NOAA hosted a ceremony and public ship tours at the Marine Operations Center – Pacific (MOC-P) in Newport, Oregon.

The ceremony opened with the national anthem sung by Ensign Airlie Picket and HAST Amanda Finn. Capt. Keith Roberts, commanding officer, Marine Operations Center – Pacific, served as master of ceremonies introducing Representative David Gomberg, District 10 – Central Coast Oregon State Legislature, Rear Adm. Shep Smith, director, Office of Coast Survey, and Rear Adm. Nancy Hann, deputy director, Office of Marine and Aviation Operations and NOAA Corps, who all gave remarks during the ceremony.

“Today we are here to recognize a milestone in the career of the Rainier and Fairweather, who turn 50 this year.  They are the last of a generation of truly beautiful ships,” said Rear Adm. Shep Smith. “The passion, dedication, and craftsmanship of generations of engineers and deck force have kept these ships operable for 50 years and this is no small feat.”

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Past and present crew of NOAA ships Fairweather and Rainier.

Rear Adm. Hann provided comments on the hydrographic fleet’s contribution to the national economy and the importance of investing in the future of NOAA’s fleet. “There is recognition in the value of the work that the crew of the Rainier, Fairweather, and the entire NOAA fleet provides to the nation.”

NOAA Teacher at  Sea Alumni Association presented plaques honoring the ships to their commanding officers, Cmdr. Mark Van Waes and Cmdr. Ben Evans. The ceremony closed with the commanding officers of both ships directing inspirational words to their crews.

NOAA Teacher at Sea Alumnus Lisa Battig presents a plaque honoring NOAA Ship Fairweather to Cmdr. Mark Van Waes, commanding officer of the ship (left). NOAA Teacher at Sea Alumnus Denise Harrington presents a plaque honoring NOAA Ship Rainier to Cmdr. Ben Evans, commanding officer of the ship (right).
NOAA Teacher at Sea Alumnus Lisa Battig presents a plaque honoring NOAA Ship Fairweather to Cmdr. Mark Van Waes, commanding officer of the ship (left). NOAA Teacher at Sea Alumnus Denise Harrington presents a plaque honoring NOAA Ship Rainier to Cmdr. Ben Evans, commanding officer of the ship (right).

Following the ceremony, NOAA hosted over 400 members of the public on ship tours and tours of the MOC-P museum, a collection that features several of NOAA’s heritage assets. Visitors had the opportunity to board the ships, speak with the crew, and explore one of the many launches (small boats) that the ships deploy to conduct hydrographic survey operations.

ENS Airlie Picket shows visitors how to map the seafloor using sounding boxes.
Ensign Airlie Picket shows visitors how to map the seafloor using sounding boxes.
NOAA Ship Rainier and visitors.
Visitors of all ages toured NOAA ships Rainier and Fairweather during the open house at MOC-P.

Both ships, along with their sister ship, Mt. Mitchell, were constructed at the Jacksonville Shipyards in Florida and later christened in March of 1967. Following hydrographic tradition, the ships were named for features near their working grounds—Alaska’s Mt. Fairweather, Washington’s Mt. Rainier, and North Carolina’s Mt. Mitchell. The U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey commissioned the Fairweather and Rainier in October of 1968 at the Pacific Marine Center in Seattle. Mt. Mitchell was launched one year earlier and, though no longer commissioned with NOAA, is still operating as a privately-owned research vessel.

NOAA ships Fairweather, Rainier, and Mt. Mitchell under construction.
NOAA ships Fairweather, Rainier, and Mt. Mitchell were built in the Jacksonville Shipyard in Florida.

 

NOAA Ships Fairweather and Rainier .
NOAA Ships Fairweather and Rainier were christened in Jacksonville, Florida, in March, 1967.

The NOAA ships are operated and maintained by the Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, with hydrographic survey projects managed by the Office of Coast Survey. NOAA thanks the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Heritage Society and the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation for their support of this event.