Precision Navigation

Meet the next generation of integrated marine navigation tools, tailored for our nation's busiest waterways.

Port of Long Beach viewed from above

Safer Transport in the Nation's Largest Port

The port of Long Beach is the largest port complex in the nation and the ninth busiest port worldwide. NOAA products and services supporting the Port of Long Beach precision navigation project are expected to save vessels an estimated $10 million per year in lightering costs. Additionally, for every extra foot of draft allowed by the port, tank vessels can load $2 million of extra product. The port's precision navigation project integrates private sector innovation and NOAA data streams to support the increasingly complex decisions mariners must make as they navigate ever-larger ships through U.S. ports. Credit: U.S. Department of Homeland Security

NOAA's precision navigation project is an effort that brings together private-sector innovation and NOAA data streams to foster safer navigation in our nation's largest and busiest seaports. Precision navigation is about helping mariners make increasingly complex decisions as ever-larger ships make their way through congested U.S. ports while dealing with changing ocean conditions.

Case Study: Port of Long Beach

The port of Long Beach in California is the first seaport to adopt precision navigation. This port was an ideal candidate for this project for several reasons. First, it's the largest port in the country and ninth busiest port in the world. Second, the port is exposed to the open ocean and is influenced by unique wave, swell, and water-level conditions that make navigation challenging. And third, ultra-large crude carriers entering Long Beach were vulnerable to potential groundings when waves arrived in long period swells.

With the completion of the precision navigation project in 2017, navigation within the port was not only safer, but authorities were able to increase the draft for incoming ships from 65 feet to 66 feet, with a future goal of a 69-foot draft. Each additional foot of draft allows carriage of 40,000 additional barrels of crude oil, and 69-foot would eliminate the need for lightering.

These benefits were made possible, in part, by the expansion of the physical observing infrastructure at the port, including forecasts for wave and swell conditions from the National Weather Service, water level data from the Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services, wave buoy data from the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System, shoreline data from the National Geodetic Survey, and high resolution bathymetry from the Office of Coast Survey.

The Long Beach precision navigation project shows how NOAA supports the increasingly complex decisions mariners make as they navigate ever-larger ships through U.S. ports, especially decisions related to underkeel clearance (the distance between a ship's keel and the sea floor).

illustration that shows the effect of a ship pitching by just one degree

Pitch Perfect

You wouldn't think that a ship pitching downward by one degree would make much of a difference, but consider this: An 1,100-foot ship that pitches one degree can result in its draft (the amount of the hull that is below the water) increasing by over ten feet. With the completion of the port's precision navigation project in 2017, navigation within the port is now not only safer, but authorities have increased the draft for incoming ships from 65 feet to 66 feet, with a future goal of a 69-foot draft.

What's Next for Precision Navigation?

Pending funding, NOAA has identified the Lower Mississippi River port complex as the next area to implement new precision navigation projects. A single collision or grounding in this port complex could halt the activity of a significant portion of the multi-billion dollar shipping industry, with additional harm to other industries upstream that depend on it. A precision navigation project would address a number of challenges unique to this region, ranging from congestion and crowded anchorages to rapidly shifting sea floors and frequent fog.

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What's an inch of water worth? Our nation’s ports are the lifelines of our economy. In 2016, foreign trades through U.S. ports were valued at $1.5 trillion—$475 billion exports and $1.0 trillion imports were moved by vessels. When goods travel through ports, it means they are traveling via ship.

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