NOAA Ship Fairweather
reconnaissance survey on Aug 1, 2012
NOAA Ship Fairweather begins a 30-day survey mission in the Arctic on August 1. The reconnaissance hydrographic survey aims to check sparse soundings acquired by early U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey field parties and data gathered by other agencies along a 1,500 nautical mile coastal corridor from Dutch Harbor, Alaska, to the Canadian border. The survey will provide the information needed to determine NOAA’s future charting survey projects in the Arctic.
“Much of Alaska’s coastal area has never had full bottom bathymetric surveys to measure water depths,” observes Cmdr. James Crocker, commanding officer of the Fairweather, and chief scientist of the party. “Modern ships navigating sea lanes in the Arctic should not be expected to trust ocean depth measurements reported by Captain Cook in 1778. A tanker, carrying millions of gallons of oil, should not be asked to rely on measurements gathered in the 19th century.”
“Unfortunately, that’s exactly what navigators have to do, in too many cases. NOAA is changing that,” Crocker pointed out.
NOAA has made it a priority to update the nautical charts needed by commercial shippers, tankers, passenger vessels, and fishing fleets transiting the Alaskan coastline in ever-greater numbers. In June 2011, Coast Survey issued the Arctic Nautical Charting Plan, a major effort to update Arctic nautical charts for the fairways, approaches, and ports along the Alaskan coast.
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“Expected increases of Arctic maritime traffic, putting greater demands on the Arctic maritime system, require accurate and precise navigational data,” says Kathryn Ries, acting director of NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey. “The sheer size of the task -- the coast length of 921 nautical miles is really 2,191 miles of low tidal shoreline once you figure in the bays and inlets --- demands a rigorous process of prioritization for NOAA surveying and charting.”
Before NOAA cartographers can update nautical charts, they need the depth measurements and other data gathered by the NOAA survey vessels.
Huge swaths of the northern Alaskan maritime corridor are charted with soundings gathered before today’s technology was able to provide the precision and accuracy needed by today’s mariners. Those early measurements were taken by vessels that lacked exact positioning, didn’t have precision sounding equipment, and didn’t have experts who could ensure accurate measurements and locations.
While the survey is scheduled to take depth soundings on a zigzag pattern along a defined corridor, the sea ice near Barrow may interfere with the last leg of the project. Fairweather may have to stop short of the Canadian border if ice doesn’t recede as needed. Crocker will make the decision to proceed, or to conduct requested scientific projects instead, when Fairweather gets closer to Point Barrow.
For more information on the history of U.S. Arctic charting, see the Coast Survey blog post, Arctic survey reconnaissance begets nautical charting renaissance.
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July 31, 2012