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Making Waves: Episode 33 (August 19, 2009)

Today we’re going to head north to Kachemak Bay, Alaska, for Hydropalooza 2009. No, this isn’t a rock concert on the water, and you can’t get a T-shirt, but for the people up in Alaska taking part in Hydropalooza this month, it’s like a festival – a festival of data collection in the Bay.  

Right now, scientists on two NOAA research ships are in the Bay surveying the ocean and the coast to update nautical charts for the area. But this expedition isn’t only about updating charts. It’s about taking all the vast amount of information collected by sonar and other tools that NOAA uses to update nautical charts, and seeing what else it can be used for.

So Hydropalooza is about mapping an area like Kachemak Bay once, and using all the information collected during the expedition in many, many different ways and for many different groups of people. It’s a concept called Integrated Ocean and Coastal Mapping, and many people around NOAA will tell you it’s the future…Well, today, we talk with one of the people involved with Hydropalooza to hear what’s it’s all about.

It’s Wednesday, Aug. 19th, 2009, and this is Making Waves, your source for news from NOAA’s National Ocean Service.

Now, NOAA is the lead agency in the nation to keep our countries nautical charts up to date. These charts contain tons of detailed information … they tell us about the coasts, the depths of the water, the sea bottom, dangers to navigation, tides, where the navigation aids are, and even information about the Earth’s magnetism. This part of NOAA’s mission – hydrographic surveying - is all about ensuring safe navigation around our coasts. But the thing that people in NOAA have recognized for some time is that information collected when updating nautical charts is really useful – it could be used by other groups of people for other purposes.

Well, this is the idea behind Hydropalooza. It’s a two-year pilot project, now in the second year, and the focus is on collecting lots of information in one place about the water, coastline, and sea bottom in the Bay, and sharing it so it can be used in many different ways. Hydropalooza will result in the most detailed seafloor and coastline maps ever generated of Kachemak Bay, and all the information that’s collected is going to benefit a lot of different people.

We spoke with Kris Holderied on the phone to help explain what Hydropalooza is all about. Kris is the director of NOAA’s Kasitsna Bay Laboratory, which sits on the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska, right on Kachemak Bay. The first thing we wanted to know was where the name Hydropalooza came from. Here’s Kris:

“As all good names come, we were probably sitting, it was after a benthic habitat mapping conference in Anchorage and, when you start talking about Integrated Ocean Coastal Mapping, you start to get into names that are too long to say frequently. And there had just been one of the ‘palooza events recently and someone came up with the idea, ‘well, we could just call it Hydropalooza,’ and it was initially just an internal name, but what happened is it really works to describe that we are pulling together a whole bunch of folks both in our NOAA offices and with our local partners and stakeholders from resource management agencies, and from the local cities, as well as other federal agencies here as part of this, whether they’re actually participating in the data collection, or whether they’re going to be using the data afterwards, and so it was essentially this idea of  we’re having a party on the water in a sense by pulling us all together, so Hydropalooza stuck.”

There’s a lot of activity going on with Hydropalooza, but central to it all is a large hydrographic water survey that’s being conducted by two NOAA ships, the Fairweather and Rainier. Last year, the two ships used sonar to map the Eastern part of Kachemak Bay. This year, the ships are back to finish the job.

“What’s happening this year is we have two NOAA ships, the Fairweather and the Rainier. They’re both hydrographic survey ships and they’ll be hear from early August to early September … and they’ll be doing shipboard mapping, so running both from the ships and the survey launches that they carry,  which are simply  phenomenal, if you ever have the chance to get out on either the ships or these launches, it is absolutely phenomenal what they are able to do. So they’ll be collecting multibeam survey data, and they’ll also be installing new tide gauges to precisely measure the tides during the period of the survey – it’s one of the things that people don’t often think about that, if you’re going to have a consistent depth on a nautical chart, you have to essentially take the tides out of that – and so our Center for Operational Products and Services at NOAA, our CO-OPS office, or tides and currents office, they provide the tidal information but the ships also put in tide gauges while they’re here to get the  extra corrections for the survey. So that’s the primary field effort. “

But why choose a remote place like Kachemak Bay in Alaska? It seems kind of far away. Kris explains:

“It really came down to the variety of needs that we had here, and the partnerships that were already in place. So we have the NOAA Kasitsna Bay Lab, our laboratory which is part of the National Ocean Services Coastal Ocean Science offices. And we have the Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, also within the National Ocean Service, and a partnership with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. And with those offices already working together on how we’re using NOAA data to support, among other things, resource management, it made for a natural place to do this. The other part that, for the ships, where they were scheduled to work, it was the right place for two of them to work together, and be able to do some cross-training…

She added that Alaska is a place that we need to know much more about, and within Alaska, Kachemak Bay is a particularly dynamic place with many different kinds of habitats.

“In Alaska, we have half the coastline of the United States, so NOAA has a huge mission here. NOS, the National Ocean Service has a huge mission here. And we have big challenges in terms of being able to cover that coastline adequately, we have big challenges in that we are front and center on climate change. We are already seeing the changes in temperature and storm frequencies and coastal erosion associated with global climate change. And it’s not going to be going away anytime soon, so we’re trying to get out ahead of it to help communities and resource managers adapt.”

…The other part of Kachemak Bay that’s really interesting is that we have a great variety habitats from rocky subtidal, kelp forests, hard bottom, vertical wall type habitats to sea grass to mud flats, the shallow salt marsh areas, so you really have a diversity of habitats that you want to know how to measure better.”

The primary way that those interesting features are measured is with sonar. And it turns out that the sonar data collected during the mapping effort is chock full of interesting information. Here’s Kris:

 “Well, really, the hope is that this is how NOAA will operate. There’s been large efforts within NOAA to get more information out of multibeam sonar data in particular. The sonar gives you both the bathymetry, or the water depth, as well as something that tells you, it’s the measure of intensity of the signal, what we call the backscatter, and it tells you something about the roughness of the bottom, and one of the things we’ve been working on as an agency is to use that information to say like what is type of the bottom, what’s the habitat of the bottom, because obviously we need that for coastal resource management, fisheries management, things like that.

So there’s been a fair number of research efforts around taking out the multibeam sonar and more of a research setting where you’re focusing on really looking at the backscatter, but we collect backscatter in our operational surveys, and the operational surveys are done primarily to get the bathymetry, but there’s a lot of backscatter information that’s collected, and so one of the intents of this is how do we get better products out of that information that we’re already collecting and because it’s going to be supporting partners like the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, like the coastal science part of the National Ocean Service, we’ve got those partners here, so that’s why it makes sense to do it here. The other part of Kachemak Bay that’s really interesting is that we have a great variety habitats from rocky subtidal, kelp forests, hard bottom, vertical wall type habitats to sea grass to mud flats, the shallow salt marsh areas, so you really have a diversity of habitats that you want to know how to measure better.”

The main point of gathering up all this information, Kris said, is that it helps paint a big picture of what’s going on in the Bay. 

“This is one of those lucky opportunities to get the framework information you need to do research on a coastal system like this. There’s a lot of work that we do that, I’ll say, is point measurements, or transect measurements where you’re looking at a single site, or a line of sites, and what you really want to do to understand the system as a whole is to put it in that larger context, put it in that larger framework to understand where it fits in the bathymetry, what’s the different water depths,  where it fits within different habitats, and that’s a bit easier to do on land because you can see it.  You can see it with your eyes, but it’s harder to do underwater, and sonar is our basic tool to doing this, and so having this spatial framework for Kachemak Bay is going to be really key for us to understand the ecosystem and then provide the products that help us better manage it.“

While this information will be really useful for Kris’ research work done at the Katsitsna Lab, she said her main goal during Hydropalooza is to get the word out that this data is available to people in the community.

“Our goal is to get more of that information out beyond the navigation community that already uses it and  depends on it critically right now. NOAA’s been doing this for a long time, it’s been our primary mission for a long time. But getting those products out to, or developing products that are more useful for resource managers, for emergency response personnel, for local development. Sometimes it’s as simple as making sure they know where the data is, that it is available. Sometimes it’s changing formats a little bit so it’s something that’s a little bit more useful to someone who’s not making a nautical chart. So we’re working at that end in making the information that we collect already more useful, and it’s been absolutely fantastic working with our Office of Coast Survey and both ships and the NGS, because the work that these folks do on a daily basis is amazing and if we can help to get that word out, we’re glad to do it.”

While Hydropalooza is taking place in Alaska, the lessons learned here are going to be useful all around the nation.

“One of the things about this is that trying to do it on an operational survey means that if we develop things that work well here, say it’s a slightly better product out of the back-scatter data, that can then be applied to every operational survey that NOAA does. So the lessons that we learn from Hydropalooza will hopefully help us improve what we get out of this large investment we make into hydrographic surveys.”

“Fish and Game may or may not know that NOAA just collected survey data in a new area. They’re not sort of on the distribution list because we focus on navigation, so all the pilot associations and the cities and all the folks that are sort of right on navigation all know that. But What we realize is that many other groups: resource managers, research organizations, such as even within NOAA, like our conservation groups, and then land managers for state and national parks, folks like that in our coastal areas can all use this information, but they have to know that it’s there, and they need to have it in a format that they can use. They’re not going to be using some of this very – hydrographic survey bathymetry software that’s used. One of the major benefits out of this is how do we better communicate with some of these other stakeholders, because for them the information is gold. …. For sure, we should make sure that everybody that can use it knows that it’s available and has it in a form that they can use.”

And that’s one of the big goals of Hydropalooza. Kris said that this pilot project will help NOAA improve how the data that’s collected for nautical charts can be shared. It could help save other agencies save a lot of time and money.

“It’s a simple thing, it’s communication, but what we’re finding by doing this project is that you sort of find, Okay, where are those areas if we did that simple change and add these people to your communication list, or put it out in an XYZ format as well as these other types of formats. And then that’s a decision that NOAA gets to make: do we want to do that? What’s the cost of putting out the data in two different formats, perhaps. One of the things we’re trying to do with Hydropalooza is give good concrete information about those benefits and costs.”


And of course you can also read the stories we discussed today online and get links to more information on the NOS Web site at

And that’s also where you head if you have any questions about this week’s podcast, about the National Ocean Service, or about our ocean. And if you want, you can also send us an email at

Let’s bring in the ocean....

This is Making Waves from NOAA’s National Ocean Service.