NOAA makes forecast data easier to display in marine navigation systems

By, Neil Weston, Office of Coast Survey Technical Director

Have you ever been on the water when weather and sea conditions suddenly change? As mariners can attest, decisions need to be made quickly. Many rely on NOAA operational forecast system (OFS) data—a national network of nowcast and forecast models—to make decisions about their situation on the water. NOAA OFS are available to the mariner as data streams through a variety of websites, including nowCOAST™. However, only recently has OFS data been viewable on marine navigation systems, making it even more convenient for those needing to make critical decisions on the water.

Rose Point’s Coastal Explorer displays NOAA surface current data.
Rose Point’s Coastal Explorer, one example of many navigation software packages available, displays NOAA surface current data.

NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey recently started producing OFS data in formats that are easily ingested by marine navigation systems, such as Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems (ECDIS), portable pilot units (PPU), and electronic charting systems (ECS). These data not only have the potential to display nowcasts and forecasts in real-time on navigation system displays, but can also optimize route planning for commercial ships. Ultimately, these model forecast data will be available for machine-to-machine exchange, with data file sizes small enough to enable delivery from shore to vessel over existing communication and data networks.

Nowcasts and forecasts are scientific predictions about the present and near future state of a coastal marine environment including water levels, currents, salinity, and sea surface temperature for many coastal regions. OFS are national networks of operational nowcast and forecast models that consist of automated integration of observing system data, hydrodynamic model predictions, product dissemination, and continuous quality control monitoring. These versatile systems can be used for a variety of activities such as search and rescue, recreational boating, fishing, and storm effect tracking.

Seapilot Navigation computes the optimized route from start to finish via any waypoints, considering wind, current, land, shallow water and the properties of the boat.
Seapilot Navigation computes the optimized route from start to finish via any waypoints, considering wind, current, land, shallow water and the properties of the boat. This system also displays NOAA OFS data (surface currents).

Initially, the Coast Survey converted surface current data for several OFS regions from a format primarily used by scientists (netCDF), to a format more widely used in meteorology (GRIB 1 & 2). A parallel developmental effort is underway to include conversion of netCDF data to an internationally recognized format (HDF5) adopted by the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO). Within the IHO, many product specifications, including tides, water levels, and currents, are developed using HDF5 encoding. The goal is to produce products and services that comply to internationally accepted standards such as those adopted by the IHO. Compliance with these standards increases data interoperability, allowing navigation platforms to easily ingest and display the data. Coast Survey plans to disseminate OFS data in the HDF5 format by the end of 2018.

Any mention of a commercial product is for informational purposes and does not constitute an endorsement by the U.S. Government or any of its employees or contractors.