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Making Waves: Episode 81 (August 18, 2011)

Podcast script

You're listening to Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service. I'm your host, Troy Kitch.

We're heading North to Alaska today. In early July, the NOAA Ship Fairweather headed out of Kodiak to begin a couple months of hydrographic surveying in remote areas of the Arctic in places where ocean depths haven't been measured since 1867 … that's the year that the U.S. agreed to purchase Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million dollars.

Now, you might not think that remote areas of the Arctic Ocean up in Northern Alaska see a lot of ship traffic. But they're seeing more and more every year … traffic from the offshore oil and gas industry, cruise liners, military craft, tugs and barges and fishing vessels. Seagoing traffic is growing by leaps and bounds as sea ice continues to retreat and the greater Arctic Ocean becomes more and more accessible for vessels of every kind.

Earlier this year, NOAA released a new Arctic charting plan that lays out an ambitious agenda to survey critical Arctic areas, those places where marine transportation dynamics are changing rapidly. And at the heart of this new effort is the NOAA Ship Fairweather, a 231-foot survey vessel, command by NOAA Corps Capt. Dave Neander.

We reached Capt. Neander by phone to learn more about the Fairweather's Arctic mapping expedition going on right now in an area of Alaska called Kotzebue Sound.

"Due to increased commerce in northern and northwest Alaska there's an urgent need to establish new larger-scale charts of the area with modern hydrographic data. The area in Kotzbue Sound where we're working for example, the largest scale chart in that area is 1:700;000 which is an extremely small-scale chart as chart standards go. Usually when you navigate on charts with a ship you're in the 1:40, 1:80;000 scale or larger, down to the1:20 or 1:10,000 scale harbor charts. The Kotzbue Sound survey area that we've been working in this summer is just one Arctic priority area listen in NOAA's Arctic Charting Plan."

Let's take a moment to talk about chart scales. This can be a little confusing. The scale is the ratio of a distance on the map to the corresponding distance on the ground. So a map with a scale of 1:700;000 means that one unit on the map equals 700,000 units of the Earth. 1 inch on the map, then, would be 9.6 nautical miles for a 1:700,000 scale chart. You just can't squeeze that much detail in such a small-scale nautical chart. Added to this, the chart in use today for Kotzbue Sound is based on really old information.

"The existing data on the 1:700;000 chart is from the early 1800s when an expedition went up there well before Alaska became a U.S. state, back when it was it was in the Russian hands, so the data is over 150 years old, and we just want to make sure that we get up there and update it and make sure we can create these larger scale charts from hydrographic data and that the depth contours and any potential obstructions are adequately depicted on the new charts."

Capt. Neander said that the area the Fairweather is tasked with mapping this summer is about 240 square nautical miles.

"We just finished a 22-day leg and got back into Dutch Harbor on the 28th of July. We completed two surveys during that 22-day leg, about 105 square nautical miles and about 1,500 linear nautical miles of hydrography. We have two additional project legs, and we should be finishing up around the 1st of September and heading back to Kodiak."

You can think of a hydrographic survey as sort of like 'mowing a lawn.' The Fairweather -- along with smaller launches from the Fairweather for shallower areas that the big ship can't get into -- are spending the summer traveling back and forth and back and forth to take depth soundings over much of Kotzbue Sound. If you think about the metaphor of mowing a lawn, linear miles is what would appear on your lawnmower's mileage gauge, while the area's square nautical miles is the size of the entire patch of lawn. The equipment the Fairweather is using for this task is a far cry from the primitive tools mariners used in the 1800s to measure depths.

"We have three launches on board right now. They're equipped with a shallow-water multi beam system and two of the launches also have a hull-mounted side-scan system, so the multi beam gives us the depth information, while the sidescan covers a broader swaths, so to say, and gives imagery only, so the imagery will give me an indication of any potential targets, or contacts, or obstructions that protrude off the bottom. The ship itself is equipped with a multi beam system and we're also set up to tow a sidescan sonar so, same with the launches, the multi beam gives us the depth information, while the sidescan gives us imagery over a much broader area."

Capt. Neander said that this data will be sent back to NOAA's Coast Survey to create an updated nautical chart. While it typically takes a year or two to produce a new chart because there's also a need to acquire shoreline data to make an accurate larger scale map, he said that any critical hazards to navigation that the Fairweather finds during this summer's survey are immediately sent in to be added to NOAA's current charts to keep mariners safe. I asked Capt. Neander why NOAA is prioritizing areas like Kotzbue Sound for hydrographic surveys. He said one big reason is that many remote coastal towns in Northern Alaska get all of their supplies during the summer months by sea.

"For example, the town of Kotzbue gets its yearly supply of heating oil, diesel, and gasoline by barge during the months of June and July, and one of the things they do, is they bring the barges in, they anchor the barges offshore and then they lighter to smaller barges because it's too shallow to get the bigger barges in there, so they bring the smaller barges with a smaller amount of product and then they offload it to their tanks, and that's what lasts them through the whole winter into the next year."

And, as I mentioned at the top of the show, this traffic is only growing year over year as ships and barges carrying supplies are increasingly sharing the Arctic ocean with research ships, Coast Guard vessels, fishing ships, and cruise liners. Now, at this point, you may be wondering … why haven't the charts for these areas been updated sooner?

"Alaska is big. It's a huge area, and survey efforts in recent years, back to the 1920s and 1930s, have focused priorities on other areas of Alaska that were surveyed with very crude technology -- lead line technology and in some areas not at all -- so there's quite a few areas in and around other areas of Alaska that need to have critical updates as well, and we're just starting to push towards the Arctic region with the increased interest in marine transportation in that area."

So the Fairweather has her work cut out for her. It will take many years to map the Arctic areas of Alaska because of limited resources -- only two NOAA ships are conducting hydrographic surveys in these areas. And you have to consider that surveys can only be tackled during a very short summer season. For the rest of the year, the weather is just too bad. Actually, the weather can pretty bad in the summer, too. And that's not all. Capt. Neander said that what makes surveying in these remote regions particularly challenging and time-consuming is that there are just so many unknowns.

"When you enter a new project area in a very remote environment which is covered by a 1:700,000 scale chart, with sparse soundings of unreliable origin or unknown origin, you have to be extremely cautious and vigilant -- not only in the nature and complexity of the sea floor, but the unknown weather patterns, and currents, and physical properties of the water, which can have a serious effect on operations and data quality. You know, you can plan, plan, plan before you head up there, but you're never going to know until you get up there what it's going to be like. You know, weather forecasting in these areas is very crude at best, you know we get a good idea from some of the forecast maps and satellite imagery, but until you've actually spent time in the area and get familiar with the weather patterns, the currents, the winds … you know, I think that's my biggest concern, and that's one of the unique things about working up there is that we don't know, because we don't have the experience up there."

The Fairweather is scheduled to complete the mapping of Kotzbue Sound by early September. Next year, they're heading even further North in Alaska to map approaches to the Delong Mountain Terminal, the offloading port for the largest zinc mine operation in the world.

We'd like to thank Capt. Dave Neander, commander of the NOAA Ship Fairweather, for taking the time to speak with us today. You can find links to learn more about the Fairweather, about NOAA nautical charts and the technology that goes into making the charts, and the new Arctic Charting Plan in our show notes. You'll find the show notes at

If you have any questions about this week's podcast, about the National Ocean Service, or about our ocean -- or if you have an ocean fact you'd like answered -- send us a note at

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