Have you ever wondered what it is like to work on a NOAA navigation response team (NRT) or what makes our team members experts in their field?
The Office of Coast Survey deploys NRTs across the country to conduct emergency hydrographic surveys requested by the U.S. Coast Guard, port officials, and other first responders in the wake of accidents and natural events that create navigation hazards. In their day‐to‐day, non‐emergency role, the NRTs work in the nation’s busiest ports, surveying for dangers to navigation and updating nautical chart products.
Meet Erin Diurba, a NOAA navigation response team member homeported in Galveston, Texas. Her self-described “survey wanderlust” has taken her across the globe to gain hydrographic surveying expertise on diverse teams and in unique environments. She tells her story here in this story map.
The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season was powerful, with the strongest storms occurring consecutively from late August to early October. The sequential magnitude of four hurricanes in particular—Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Nate—made response efforts challenging for NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey. Coast Survey summarized this season’s response efforts along with the efforts of NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson (operated by NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations) in the following story map.
Coast Survey has been discovering and marking the locations of underwater dangers since our surveyors took the nation’s first official ocean soundings in 1834. We’ve used or developed all the technological advancements – lead lines, drag lines, single beam echo sounders, towed side scan sonars, and post-1990 multibeam echo sounders – and now we can point to a new major advancement for fast deployment and quick recovery. In February, Coast Survey’s Mobile Integrated Survey Team (MIST) used an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) to locate a submerged buoy that was interfering with anchorages in the Chesapeake Bay.
“You and the crew of the HASSLER put us right where we needed to be!” said a confirmation email from the U.S. Coast Guard to NOAA Lt. Ryan Wartick, one of Coast Survey’s navigation managers. “Thanks for the great work!”
The problem began in early February, when an outbound tug struck and dragged a very large buoy and its anchor to an unknown location in the vicinity of Chesapeake Bay’s Thimble Shoal Channel. The U.S. Coast Guard closed adjacent anchorages because of the potential danger to navigation posed by the submerged buoy, affecting commercial vessel operations in the area.
On February 9, Lt. Wartick sat down with the U.S. Coast Guard, and other local and federal agencies, to arrange for Coast Survey mobilization in a collaborative effort to find the missing G “11” buoy. The Coast Guard asked Coast Survey to search Anchorage “A” on Friday, February 12, and provided a 45-foot vessel for our use.
Coast Survey’s MIST responders Robert Mowery and James Miller were able to pack up the AUV in Maryland and drive to USCG station on Naval Little Creek amphibious base, where they set up, calibrated, and hit the water on February 12 – and promptly located five potential targets, one of which looked especially promising.
This side scan imagery, acquired by the Hydroid REMUS 100 AUV during the Coast Survey MIST initial search on February 12, shows the sunken buoy – although, at that time, the team was not 100% confident it was the buoy. The intensity of the sonar return and the dimensions of the target strongly supported their suspicion that this was the buoy, but the target was at nadir on the side scan profile, which introduces uncertainty in this type of system. They did, however, deem it the most likely among the five possible targets revealed by the AUV data.
Fortunately, NOAA Ship Ferdinand Hassler was departing Norfolk on February 17, on their way to their survey project for the approaches to the Chesapeake, and so they made a slight adjustment in their route. The ship’s hydrographers used their multibeam echo sounders to check the targets, based on the MIST AUV data, and they confirmed that the top AUV target was indeed the buoy. The multibeam data also verified that none of the other search targets pose a danger to navigation or risk fouling an anchor for ships in the anchorage.
With the confirmation, the U.S. Coast Guard was able to remove the buoy and re-open the area for maritime traffic.
The Coast Survey Development Lab has been evaluating the use of autonomous underwater vehicles as tools for hydrographic surveying in support of NOAA’s nautical charting mission. The use of AUVs, in collaboration with NOAA’s manned survey fleet, could greatly increase survey efficiency. Additionally, as this response confirmed, their flexible deployment options make AUVs a valuable tool for marine incident response.
NOAA continues to work in partnership with other federal, state, and local partners in response to the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. NOAA’s efforts are focused on navigation surveys to restore maritime commerce; aerial surveys to assist in those efforts and to aid on-the-ground responders from FEMA and local authorities; and in oil spill cleanup and damage assessment. NOAA’s National Weather Service is also keeping authorities aware of changing weather conditions that could impact recovery and response efforts.
NOAA’s hydrographic survey vessels, including two three-person navigation response teams (NRTs) and the NOAA Ship Thomas Jefferson with her two survey launches, have completed surveys of the Port of New York and New Jersey. Working over the past five days, the high-tech vessels searched approximately 20 square nautical miles of shipping lanes, channels, and terminals to search for dangers to navigation.
In addition to aiding in the gradual reopening of the New York City-area port to shipping, including special emergency deliveries of needed petroleum fuels products, NOAA navigation survey response teams also provided valuable data to allow for: the reopening of the port at Hampton Roads, Virginia, home of the largest naval base in the world and one of the nation’s leading ports for the shipping of coal; the reopening of the ports of Baltimore and Philadelphia; and the resumption of the ferry that connects Lewes, Del., and Cape May, N.J.— an important access route to bring aid to stricken New Jersey and Delaware shore communities.
While NOAA’s navigation assets have completed their primary assignments, they remain available to continue to assist the U.S. Coast Guard, as needed, and will be conducting additional surveys in smaller navigational areas of South Jersey and Delaware in coming days.
The NRTs’ work helps speed the re-opening of ports and waterways, allowing the flow of relief supplies, and enabling the resumption of ocean commerce — valued at more than $1 trillion annually to the nation’s economy — to resume.
NOAA hydrographers and survey technicians will continue to process the billions of points of data collected by the five NOAA vessels since Sandy response operations began on Oct. 30 at the Port of New York and New Jersey. While initial assessments are based off on-scene observations, additional image processing may reveal further details.
Once processed, Sandy response hydrographic data collected by all NOAA survey vessels in N.Y., N.J., Delaware Bay, and Chesapeake Bay will be available from the National Geophysical Data Center. This data is valuable for contemporary use—but also for reference if NOAA vessels need to re-survey the same areas in future years.
The National Ocean Service has more information on the status of post-Sandy operations for damage assessment, pollution response, and weather reporting.
Coast Survey’s major survey operations in response to Sandy are completed in Port of Virginia, allowing port operations to resume. That timely resumption is proving to be vital for East Coast shipping, as the port is now receiving cargo diverted from the Port of New York and New Jersey. Associated Press is reporting that more than a thousand containers were offloaded in Virginia yesterday, with more on the way.
Meanwhile, critical survey work continues in the Port of New York and New Jersey, with two of Coast Survey’s navigation response teams (NRT) and two of the Thomas Jefferson launches continuing their search for dangers to navigation in shipping channels and terminals. Today, the high tech survey boats attached to the Thomas Jefferson surveyed the East River, as the ship processes data for delivery to the Coast Guard. One of the boats then went to survey Church Hill Channel this afternoon, while the other went to Gravesend Bay. NRT 2 is surveying Port Elizabeth and Port Newark in Newark Bay. NRT 5 surveyed Kill Van Kull and then proceeded to Author Kill.
Getting the surveys done, quickly but thoroughly, is extremely important to the nation’s economy. Over $200 billion of imports and exports moved through the Port of NY/NJ in 2011. It is the country’s third largest port, by value of cargo (fourth largest, by volume). The flow of trade at the port reaches from America’s heartland, with exports like automobiles and meat, in addition to many other commodities. (See PANYNJ Trade Statistics.)
This graphic, compiled by NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey, Navigation Services Division, depicts the surveys at the Port of NY/NJ. NOAA’s planned and completed surveys (shown in blue) are 82% of the total survey requests for the port.
Bonus photo for the day: Ensign Brittany Anderson, onboard the Thomas Jefferson, captured this picture of one of the TJ’s high-tech survey boats (called a “launch”), as they left to survey the East River this morning.
NOAA’s newest survey ship, the Ferdinand R. Hassler, began survey operations today in support of the U.S. Coast Guard efforts to re-open the Port of Virginia. Hassler was in port at NOAA’s Marine Operations Center – Atlantic in Norfolk, Virginia, for maintenance when Hurricane Sandy affected the area. The ship’s crew spent Monday completing the work and system tests necessary to get underway once the storm passed, and has now been returned to limited operational status.
Lt. Cmdr. Ben Evans, Hassler’s commanding officer, got the ship underway today (Tuesday), and will return Wednesday evening. The Coast Guard Captain of the Port for Hampton Roads requested that the ship survey critical portions of Thimble Shoal Channel and Chesapeake Channel, the deep draft routes to the ports of Hampton Roads and Baltimore.
“Surveying the deepest draft channels will allow the Coast Guard to decide when to re-open the port to unrestricted traffic without unnecessary delay,” Evans explained. “The ports of the Chesapeake Bay are critical to the U.S. economy and national security, so we need to make this effort as soon as the ship is ready to sail.”
The need for hydrographic surveying is critical. There are 78 large vessels, including portions of the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet, waiting to transit through the entrance to Chesapeake Bay.
The Hassler was also a pivotal survey asset last year, as Hampton Roads resumed operations after Hurricane Irene. At that time, Hassler was one of the three NOAA survey vessels used to clear the port from dangers caused by underwater debris or shoaling. Their work enabled a rapid resumption of shipping and port operations in 2011.
“Delays in shipping, even minor ones, cost the economy millions each year,” explained Rear Admiral Gerd Glang, director of NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey. “After Hurricane Irene last year, NOAA’s rapid maritime response paid dividends in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, where an average of $5 million worth of cargo is shipped in or out, every hour. This year, rapid response is just as critical.”
As conditions go downhill, NOAA is deploying personnel and hydrographic survey assets to help speed the resumption of shipping after SANDY clears out.
Coast Survey has deployed navigation managers from outside Hurricane Sandy’s areas of impact, supplemented with headquarters personnel, moving them to areas expected to be hit hard. Navigation managers are now at U.S. Coast Guard Incident Command Centers for New York – New Jersey and for Delaware Bay. We are also working with Coast Guard Captains of the Port for Virginia, Baltimore, and New England. NOAA’s navigation managers are working with the Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers to coordinate deployment of NOAA’s navigation response teams (NRT) for rapid maritime response. They are also identifying vessels of opportunity, for potential use with Coast Survey’s mobile survey team (MIST).
NOAA’s navigation response teams provide essential information when ports need to quickly but safely re-open in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, helping to limit the nation’s exposure to significant economic losses and adverse effects on national security caused by prolonged disruptions to the maritime transportation system.
As of noon today, the graph below depicts the position of navigation response teams, survey vessels, and equipment available to search for underwater dangers to navigation and to detect dangerous shoaling that may pose an unacceptable risk to vessels.