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.

 

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.

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.

Take a 360 tour of NOAA Ship RAINIER

In celebration of 50 years of survey and service to the nation, NOAA ships Rainier and Fairweather—two of NOAA’s hydrographic survey vessels—will be opening their doors and hosting public ship tours. Since we understand that many of you are unable to be in Newport, Oregon, the afternoon of March 22 to take a tour in person, we are bringing the tour to you! The following 20 images offer a 360 degree view of the interior and exterior of NOAA Ship Rainier. The images were taken last field season on the survey operations mission to Channel Islands, California. From the crew mess and engine room to a view from the bow, we have captured it all.

The crew mess

Wardroom

Wardroom lounge

Galley

Laundry room

Ocean lab

Survey plot room

“Holodeck” (aft survey plot room)

Bridge

Steering

Gym

Infirmary (med bay)

Cold stores

Central engine room control

Engine room

Bedroom

Boat deck

Bow

Fantail

View of fantail from boat deck

NOAA Ship Rainier surveys the waters around Kodiak Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Change of command for NOAA Ship Rainier

The crew of NOAA Ship Rainier (S-221) hosted a change of command on January 12 while moored in its homeport of Newport, Oregon.

Cmdr. John Lomnicky accepted command of Rainer, replacing Capt. Edward Van Den Ameele in a ceremony with crew and guests in attendance, including Rear Adm. Shepard Smith, director of NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey; Capt. Todd Bridgeman, director of Marine Operations, OMAO; Mayor Sandra Roumagoux, Newport, Oregon; and Cmdr. Brian Parker, commanding officer of Pacific Marine Operations Center.

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The official party (from left to right): Cdmr. John Lomnicky, Capt. Edward Van Den Ameele, Cdmr. Brian Parker, Mayor Sandra Roumagoux, Rear Adm. Shepard Smith, and Capt. Todd Bridgeman

Cmdr. Lomnicky follows nearly two dozen officers commanding Rainier in her 49-year history. He started his NOAA Corps career as a junior officer onboard Rainier and served as the ship’s executive officer for the past two years.

The commanding officer of a NOAA survey ship is not only a mariner. The CO is also the ship’s chief scientist and senior program representative. This means that, in addition to being responsible for the safe management of the vessel, the ship’s CO is also solely and ultimately responsible for the completion of the science mission: delivering quality hydrographic surveys.

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Cmdr. John Lomnicky (left) accepts command of NOAA Ship Rainier, replacing Capt. Edward Van Den Ameele (right) as Cmdr. Brian Parker (center), commanding officer of the Pacific Marine Operations Center, facilitates the exchange.

Capt. Van Den Ameele has been the commanding officer of Rainer since June 2014. During 2015, Van Den Ameele led the ship on a trip into the Arctic Circle, surveying over 137 square nautical miles around Kotzebue Sound, Alaska. Surveying in Alaska is no easy task, and often presents a wealth of challenges — both hydrographically and operationally — that Van Den Ameele met and overcame.

Van Den Ameele’s dedication to the mariner was demonstrated during his pursuit of dangers to navigation on his projects around Kodiak Island, Alaska.  Following meetings with the fishing community, the officers and crew of Rainier identified a considerable number of dangers to navigation, submitted those for charting, and followed through to ensure these made it to the chart.

During the last three field seasons of Van Den Ameele’s command, Rainier mapped nearly 1,000 square nautical miles and surveyed over 11,700 linear nautical miles -– enough miles to have sailed halfway around the world, if the miles were put end to end!

“The efforts of Capt. Van Den Ameele and the crew of Rainier have improved the products we provide to the world’s mariners and helped increase the safety and efficiency of American maritime commerce in those areas,” said Rear Adm. Smith. “On behalf of the Office of Coast Survey, I want to congratulate you on completing a successful sea tour and job well done.”

The 231-foot Rainier is one of the most modern and productive hydrographic survey platforms of its type in the world. The ship is named for Mount Rainier in the state of Washington. Rainier’s officers, technicians, and scientists acquire and process the hydrographic data that NOAA cartographers use to create and update the nation’s nautical charts with ever-increasing data richness and precision.