Explore once, use many times

This post is adapted from a poster at the U.S. Hydro 2015 conference, in National Harbor, Maryland.

Pilot project shows nautical charting applications using NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer data

By
James J. Miller and Tyanne Faulkes, physical scientists, NOAA Office of Coast Survey, Atlantic Hydrographic Branch
Lindsay McKenna, physical scientist, ERT Inc. contractor with the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research

Mapping is the foundation of ocean exploration and marine spatial planning. In its mission to explore and broaden our knowledge of the oceans, the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer has collected high-resolution multibeam data as an integral part of its operations around the globe. Since 2013, the Office of Coast Survey has collaborated with the Okeanos Explorer during their expeditions, to improve hydrographic acquisition and processing methods and expand multibeam coverage in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean. The resulting bathymetry has supported a diverse array of oceanic research and contributed to the protection of ecologically critical habitats in U.S. waters.

A new initiative between the Office of Ocean Exploration and Research and Coast Survey has opened the door to further maximizing the data’s usefulness. In alignment with NOAA’s integrated ocean and coastal mapping program’s philosophy of “map once, use many times,” this pilot project will integrate Okeanos Explorer multibeam data from the Gulf of Mexico into NOAA’s nautical chart update pipeline, and will expand in the future to incorporate data from the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Pilot Project

Two surveys were identified during the Okeanos Explorer’s 2014 field season for a pilot project.

OE Survey W00286The focus of expedition EX1402L1 (Survey W00286) was to test the vessel’s operational equipment and map the Florida Escarpment west of the Florida Keys.

OE Survey W00285The primary goal of expedition EX1402L2 (Survey W00285) was to map the region southwest of the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary and provide details to the scientific community about biological habitats in the area.

Office of Coast Survey personnel provided field support and assisted with data analysis and documentation during these expeditions. Although it was not the original intent of these two surveys, Coast Survey assessed the data to determine whether it would improve the nautical charts in the project area. The source diagrams for the affected charts (11340, 11420, 11006, and 11013) showed that the sparsely charted soundings were based on partial coverage surveys dating from pre-1900 to 1939. In contrast, the Okeanos Explorer used a modern multibeam echo sounder (Kongsberg EM302) to acquire data with nearly complete coverage. Further analysis indicated that the Okeanos Explorer soundings were generally shallower than the charted soundings, in some instances by greater than 500 meters.

Once it was demonstrated that the Okeanos Explorer’s multibeam bathymetry would significantly improve the charts, the Atlantic Hydrographic Branch incorporated the data into Coast Survey’s chart update pipeline. Branch personnel have applied uncertainty to the data, created CUBE surfaces, written descriptive reports to document the acquisition and processing methods, and conducted a survey acceptance review to ensure that the data meets the relevant NOAA specifications for nautical charting. Coast Survey is currently compiling the data to update the affected charts.

Remaining Challenges

The various sources of the Okeanos Explorer’s vertical uncertainty need to be better accounted for within the CARIS total propagated uncertainty computation. These include tide uncertainty and sound velocity corrections (expendable bathythermographs).

In addition to the surveys already being evaluated, there is an additional 60,000 square nautical miles of Okeanos Explorer data along the Pacific Coast and Hawaii that can potentially be used for nautical charting.

Beyond the pilot: applying more Okeanos Explorer data to charts

The Atlantic Hydrographic Branch is evaluating Okeanos Explorer data that covers over 62,000 square nautical miles in the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. (The surveyed area is larger than the land area of Kansas!) Coast Survey would like to use the data to update over 30 nautical charts.

Atlantic Hydrographic Branch’s physical scientists will continue to collaborate with the Okeanos Explorer and the Office of Ocean Exploration and Research to provide support, improve data acquisition and processing methods, and transfer data from the ship for chart compilation.

About the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer

Commissioned in August 2008, the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer is the nation’s only federal vessel dedicated to ocean exploration. With 95% of the world’s oceans left unexplored, the ship’s unique combination of scientific and technological tools positions it to explore new areas of our largely unknown ocean. These explorations will generate scientific questions leading to further scientific inquiries.

Through the Okeanos Explorer Program, NOAA’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research provides the nation with important capabilities to discover and investigate new ocean areas and phenomena, conduct the basic research required to document discoveries, and seamlessly disseminate data and information-rich products to a multitude of users. The program strives to develop technological solutions and innovative applications to critical problems in undersea exploration and to provide resources for developing, testing, and transitioning solutions to meet these needs.

A small hydro research vessel delivers big results

by Dawn Forsythe, Coast Survey communications

Remember when your mom told you, “The best things come in small packages”? It turns out that is true for more than diamonds, puppies, and kids who think they are too short.

Today it was my privilege to ride with the 57-foot Bay Hydro II, one of NOAA’s smallest research vessels, as she came into Baltimore Harbor for the Star Spangled Spectacular, a festival that celebrates the 200th anniversary of our National Anthem. As we sailed alongside the impressive NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer, past historic Fort McHenry, a 19th century cannon boomed ‒ probably sounding much as it did 200 years ago during the War of 1812, when the British attack was turned back at Baltimore. With that historic reminder, I was struck by how the Bay Hydro II represents Coast Survey’s two-century commitment to the Chesapeake Bay, starting with our surveys in 1843.

The view from NOAA R/V Bay Hydro II, as the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer passes historic Fort McHenry
The view from R/V Bay Hydro II, as the NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer passes historic Fort McHenry

(Historical note: Even though President Jefferson ordered the Survey of the Coast in 1807, the U.S. Coast Survey was not able to assist during the War of 1812. We were still organizing and, in fact, the first superintendent of Coast Survey was in England when war broke out. Ferdinand Hassler was trying to recruit surveying and cartographic experts and was searching for the proper equipment. He was not able to return to the U.S. until after the war. Some historians think Hassler may have been detained in England at what could euphemistically be called a “special invitation” of the British government.)

Bay Hydro II, the successor to the original productive Bay Hydrographer, was only commissioned five years ago. She was built for the Bay. As U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski wrote in 2009:

“The Port of Baltimore depends on accurate charts to ensure maritime traffic flows freely, and to help keep the Bay safe from environmental disasters that could result from vessels striking uncharted hazards… Investing in advanced technology, like the Bay Hydrographer II and the sonar equipment it uses, is especially important for keeping America competitive in a global arena. Much of the charting equipment and software currently used within NOAA’s hydrographic fleet was first tested and proven right here in the Bay using this vessel’s predecessor.

“I’m proud to have such an advanced test platform in Maryland’s backyard, keeping America safe, and keeping America innovative.”

The Bay Hydro II is meeting Senator Mikulski’s vision for safety and innovation.

BHII in Hampton Roads 2011
Bay Hydro II surveyed in Hampton Roads following Hurricane Irene, speeding the resumption of port operations

Bay Hydro II has an impressive record. She was the first vessel in Norfolk waters after Hurricane Irene and Sandy, searching for underwater debris to speed resumption of shipping and naval operations in Hampton Roads. In addition to leading Coast Survey evaluations of emerging hydrographic survey technologies, she has assisted U.S. Navy researchers who are testing new technologies. She has rescued stranded boaters and removed debris that posed a danger to navigation in the Bay. And by participating in local community events, the Bay Hydro crews have educated tens of thousands of people about the Bay’s marine characteristics and maritime importance.

Speaking of education… At Baltimore’s 2012 Sailabration, nearly 9,000 people toured this mighty little research vessel for an introduction to NOAA’s hydrographic surveys. With more than a million people expected for this year’s Star Spangled Spectacular, from Sep. 11 to Sep. 15, I’d be surprised if the three-person Bay Hydro crew has any voice left on Tuesday.

This weekend, a lot of people are going to discover how a small research vessel delivers big results.

O-I-C Buesseler
Lt.j.g. Bart Buesseler is the officer-in-charge of the R/V Bay Hydro II
Rob Mowery
Rob Mowery, physical scientist technician on the Bay Hydro II, explains survey preparations to a visiting media crew.