A navigation response team deployed to Maine's dangerous Cobscook Bay in 2010. The Eastport fishing community asked for full bottom surveys and updates to nautical charts after several men lost their lives when their boats capsized.
NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey has been serving the nation’s mariners since the early 1800s. Coast Survey is perhaps best known as the nation’s chartmaker. To update those charts, three NOAA ships with launches regularly survey coastal areas, acquiring bathymetric data for chart updates and a variety of other uses. But there’s more. In addition to these highly visible ships, two- and three-person navigation response teams are working somewhat below the radar, constantly surveying port areas and sea lanes. Their small but powerful technology gives them the flexibility to move quickly to meet the navigational needs of mariners.
Coast Survey is currently firming up its 2012 and 2013 navigation response team survey schedule, prioritizing critical chart updates among the nation’s 175 major ports. Their task, day in and day out, is to re-measure ocean depths to update nautical charts, search for dangers to navigation, and give mariners the information they need to protect lives and increase shipping efficiencies.
Even after the survey schedules are finalized, though, the teams are on constant call to respond to ports experiencing slowdowns or stoppages due to major weather events and other emergencies. The expertise gathered through the daily survey operations gives these teams expertise that is essential when quick action is necessary.
“With bigger ships, crowded sea lanes, and more uses of ocean areas, shipping today is increasingly a task of precision and accuracy,” explains NOAA Corps Cmdr. Todd Haupt, chief of the Office of Coast Survey’s Navigation Response Branch. “Weather and man-made events can dramatically change the shape of the ocean floor and move underwater debris, which can cause problems for mariners.”
“Navigation response teams have the expertise and flexibility to quickly conduct hydrographic surveys to search for those changes.”
Where will the navigation response teams be?
Coast Survey has six navigation response teams that survey port areas at the request of port officials or the U.S. Coast Guard. Teams are in place and planning for surveys scheduled for this year. For instance, Coast Survey will conduct a year-long survey of the sea floor in the Port of Houston and Galveston Bay navigational areas, to aid efforts to bring more trade, more cargo, more jobs, and more economic benefits to the Houston area. The navigation team arrived in Galveston in mid-December, and immediately began pre-survey preparations with mariners and federal partners.
The Texas team came from Michigan, where they were surveying the Great Lakes. The team also worked off the coast of Virginia earlier in 2011, speeding the resumption of maritime commerce after Hurricane Irene hit the Eastern Seaboard.
Further to the east, navigation teams are tentatively planning for 2012 surveys around Panama City and St. Johns River in Florida, before moving on to some of the Louisiana areas around Port Fourchon and Houma. Another team is scheduled for New York Harbor and Eastern Long Island Sound, with some mid-summer work in Portland, Maine. On the west coast, tentative plans call for surveys in San Francisco Bay and LA/Long Beach, as well as southern Puget Sound.
In 2013, Coast Survey plans much more survey work in the Gulf of Mexico, from the western Gulf to Alabama. In the east, Georgia ports, Long Island Sound, and Narragansett Bay are on the list of priorities, while western teams plan for more survey work in Puget Sound and LA/Long Beach. A team is also scheduled to return to the Great Lakes, for work in Lake Huron’s Thunder Bay.
How fast will mariners get information gathered by the navigation response teams?
The navigation response teams have crews of two or three experienced hydrographers. They use a 28-foot survey boat equipped with both multibeam and sidescan sonar. After they acquire and check the data, they forward it on to Coast Survey processing branches before cartographers apply the changes to electronic and raster navigational chart updates.
Five years ago, it could take four years to update a chart using new survey data. Today, thanks to new technology and processes, Coast Survey can process a survey and update the charts in less than a year; high priority surveys can be completed in 90 days.
If the teams find any immediate dangers to navigation, they won’t wait for the chart updates – they will notify the public and appropriate officials as soon as possible.
January 23, 2012