Do We Still Need Lighthouses?

Though numerous lighthouses still serve seafarers, modern electronic aids to navigation play a larger role in maritime safety in the 21st century.

Point Arena Lighthouse

Point Arena Lighthouse, which sits near the northern boundary of Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. Image credit: Robert Schwemmer

Lighthouses and beacons are towers with bright lights and fog horns located at important or dangerous locations. They can be found on rocky cliffs or sandy shoals on land, on wave-swept reefs in the sea, and at entrances to harbors and bays. They serve to warn mariners of dangerous shallows and perilous rocky coasts, and they help guide vessels safely into and out of harbors. The messages of these long-trusted aids to navigation are simple: either STAY AWAY, DANGER, BEWARE! or COME THIS WAY!

While lighthouses still guide seafarers, nowadays, the Global Positioning System (GPS), NOAA’s nautical charts, lighted navigational aids, buoys, radar beacons, and other aids to navigation effectively warn mariners of dangerous areas and guide them to safe harbors. Some 48,000 federal buoys, beacons, and electronic aids of the marine transportation system mark more than 25,000 miles of waterways, harbor channels, and inland, intracoastal and coastal waterways, and serve more than 300 ports.

On August 7, 1789, Congress approved the Lighthouse Act—the first public works program undertaken by the new federal government—which established and supported lighthouses, beacons, buoys, and public piers. Members of Congress thought the bill was so important that they passed the measure even before they established pay for themselves!

August 7 Is recognized as National Lighthouse Day. Even with the advent of advanced navigation technology, many lighthouses still sparkle for seafarers.

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While many lighthouses still shine, cartographers in NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey practice the art and science of designing, compiling, updating, and distributing Electronic Navigational Charts. These charts are specifically tailored to the needs of marine navigation.


Last updated: 08/03/18
Author: NOAA
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