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Marine Navigation

Ships passing under a bridge.

Today's massive ships push the depth limit of many ports and harbors. NOAA tools —such as nautical charts, accurate positioning services, and ocean and weather observations—play a key role in ensuring that shipments move swiftly and safely along our marine highways.


Our marine transportation system includes 500,000 square nautical miles of navigationally significant waters. Over 1.34 billion metric tons of cargo, valued at $1.73 trillion, shipped in and out of U.S. ports in foreign trade in 2011. Those ports support, directly and indirectly, more than 13 million American jobs.

The connections between the system, coastal communities, and maritime industries is intuitive. Less recognized are the links between communities in our nation's heartland and the marine transportation system. For example, consider that fiscal 2013 agricultural exports are forecast at a record $145 billion. Whether the product is wheat from the Great Plains, livestock from the Southwest, fruits and vegetables, chicken, or cotton, producers in rural communities need efficient maritime highways so their product can be shipped to overseas markets.

NOAA tools—such as nautical charts, accurate positioning services, and ocean and weather observations—play a key role in ensuring that shipments move swiftly and safely along our marine highways.


Producing nautical charts

When planning a road trip, you probably grab a map. Mariners have their own special 'road maps' - nautical charts. NOAA is the nation's chartmaker, constantly updating a suite of over 1,000 charts using sonar, LiDAR, and aerial photographs. Much like road maps, nautical charts provide basic navigation information, such as water depths and the locations of hazards. Going beyond traditional charting products, NOAA is also using advanced technology to add more layers of data, alerting mariners when they approach right whale management areas, for instance, or noting marine sanctuaries or fisheries habitat. Using all of these tools, mariners plan efficient routes and avoid dangerous or ecologically sensitive areas.


Delivering real-time data

Today's massive ships push the depth limit of many ports and harbors. NOAA delivers tools and information to help mariners select the safest routes through shallow waterways. For example, the Physical Oceanographic Real-Time System, or 'PORTS,' operates in 20 ports around the country, providing up-to-the-minute information on tides, currents, salinity, water and air temperature, atmospheric pressure, and wind (speed, gusts, and direction). This information helps mariners time the movement of their vessels – from the smallest recreational craft to the most massive oil tankers – through more than 50 U.S. seaports and waterways. Port authorities, local officials, and marine pilot associations also use PORTS to determine if a waterway is open and safe for navigation.


Building a spatial framework

When a ship is passing under a bridge or moving through a channel, it can be a pretty tight fit. To avoid collisions and ensure safe passage, mariners rely on NOAA positioning information. NOAA's National Spatial Reference System and National Water Level Observation Network provide a highly accurate, precise, and consistent geographic reference framework throughout our country. Such a framework is imperative to determining land and water elevations, to help mariners safely move around obstructions in our nation's busy waterways.


Responding to disasters

When hurricanes and other disasters hit the U.S. coast, ship movement in and out of ports can grind to a halt. Given that waterborne commerce is the lifeblood of our nation's economy, NOAA moves quickly to help reopen ports, getting goods and services moving again. NOAA navigation response teams survey ports and channels, searching for submerged debris and other dangers to navigation. NOAA aerial photography helps the public, decision makers, and insurance adjusters assess the extent of storm damage. Real-time NOAA data also helps federal, state, and local officials make post-disaster response decisions.


Understanding the land-water interface

Water rises and falls. And so does land. Planning the use of ports, protecting communities from flooding, and responding to human-made and natural disasters requires knowing the relationship between water levels and land features. NOAA provides geospatial and temporal information to help coastal managers better understand this land-water interface. This information includes geodetic data, seafloor surveys, and tide and current information. These tools are not just benefiting marine navigation; they are also helping to keep coastal communities safe.


Locating and removing marine debris

You might not think of a floating plastic bag as something that keeps a ship from reaching its destination. However, marine debris, such as plastic bags, lost fishing nets, and other trash, can in fact interfere with navigation safety. Marine debris can also harm shipping and coastal industries, clogging up and polluting waterways. Trash in the water is also a threat to our health and the health of critters that live in the marine environment. NOAA's Marine Debris Program works in the U.S. and around the world to research, reduce, and prevent debris in our oceans and coastal waterways.

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Did you know?

A nautical chart is one of the most fundamental tools available to the mariner. It is a map that depicts the configuration of the shoreline and seafloor. It provides water depths, locations of dangers to navigation, locations and characteristics of aids to navigation, anchorages, and other features.


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