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Making Waves: Episode 67 (Jan. 20, 2011)

This is Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service. I'm your host Troy Kitch.

Today, we're going to talk about how NOAA's navigational services are evolving beyond navigation.

...A big part of the Ocean Service's mission is about providing 'navigation services' ... things like measuring tides and currents, providing up-to-date nautical charts, and determining exact positions on sea or land.

These services help keep the nation's maritime commerce humming along safely ... but what else could this information be used for? Aside from navigators, who else could use it? And what would you get if you focused all of NOAA's combined navigational tools and services to study one specific coastal area in intense detail, all at one time?

A group of NOAA researchers and scientists from a bunch of NOAA offices are now seeking to answer these questions in a project now underway in Mobile Bay, Alabama. To learn more about it, today we're joined by ... well, let's let him introduce himself.

"Hi, my name is Galen Scott. I work for National Geodetic Survey, and I'm the team lead for the Ecosystems and Climate Operations Team"

I sat down with Galen last week in a small office at Ocean Service headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. Galen is one of the NOAA team members managing the activities going on in Mobile Bay. I asked him to start out by giving us the big picture about what this is all about:

"What we're doing is we're bringing the capabilities of several different NOAA offices together. So we've got National Geodetic Survey, we've got CO-OPS -- the Center for Oceanographic Operational Products and Services -- and we've got the Office of Coast Survey specifically working together right now on a big project that basically pulls together the things that our different offices do and puts them together so that, hopefully, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts."

And there are a lot of parts. Teams are measuring water levels; taking hydrographic and current surveys; measuring conductivity, temperature, and density at different points in the Bay; taking continuos GPS measurements; and calculating high-accuracy elevations along the coast. This data is being collecting by ship, on-shore, by satellite, and by aircraft.

"And so we're taking all of these different observations and putting them together and we're doing several different things with them. One of the things that we're doing is the Office of Coast Survey is creating a three-dimensional circulation model to understand and predict and forecast how the water is moving through the Mobile Bay, and that's really important for a whole number of things."

For example, this can be used to figure out where sediment is going as it flows into the Bay. Or to better understand larval transport -- how larvae are moving in the Bay and into the ocean and when different fish species spawn.

"Traditionally this information was collected to support safe navigation. It was collected to tell ship captains when they're bringing their big ships into Mobile Bay how much water's there, how deep is teh water at any particular time, what's the winds, how much space do they have underneath a bridge so that they can get under the bridge without hitting it or running aground. "

So the idea is to reuse, combine, and repackage the data NOAA is already collecting to provide mapping and measuring services for navigation. If you've heard of 'mashups' on the Web ... well, this is a similar idea. It's a creative process to mix and match and combine information so it can be used for other purposes.

"People don't know, necessarily, what we do or how our data could help them. And so one of the things we've been really successful with in the recent past is putting this information out there, telling folks what we've been doing and then they can draw their own connections to what they're trying to do, and then understand how what we do could support what they're trying to do."

Mobile Bay is a good example of this. The coastal communities who live in this area are facing a lot of issues about how to best manage their ecosystems, how to respond to coastal hazards, and how to make themselves more resistant to things like hurricanes and rising sea levels. The people who make decisions about these kinds of issues -- like coastal zone managers, emergency managers, and habitat restoration experts -- are interested in using the information NOAA's collecting to help solve some of the problems they're facing.

"These people got hammered by the storm surge from Katrina, so they're very interested in what could happen next time. And they're very interested in being able to predict, based on the storm that's coming in, what kind of surge they should expect, and what sort of response they should mount. Who should be evacuated? What they should do to protect their homes and their businesses and their lives. That's one particular example. Habitat restoration is a big deal down there because these local, tidal salt marshes are the nurseries for fish -- commercial and recreational fish species. The local economies are really dependent on commercial fishing as well as tourism. So the practical application in being able to make decisions about how to live down there are huge."

But how exactly can navigation data help make these types of decisions? Let's dig a little deeper into habitat restoration as an example. Galen said the type of information they're gathering in the Bay can help local experts prioritize what's a good investment and what's not in terms of restoring or protecting ecosystem services -- things like, for instance, a marshy area's ability to serve as a home for certain types of fish, or to serve as an area to lessen the impact of flooding. Here's how:

"By providing very specific information -- very local and very accurate information -- about what the water levels are doing there, and what the land elevation is doing there, because sea level change in a particular area is a combination of water level change and land elevation change, so particularly in this area in some of these marshes, the marshes are actually subsiding because of some of the processes that are going on within the soil substrate there, and sea levels are rising. That combination of subsidence and local sea level rise can really have a dramatic impact on these coastal marshes and can reduce their ecosystem services and eventually lead to them eventually breaking up and returning to them to open water."

So if NOAA can provide very local and very accurate information to Bay managers about what water levels are doing in a particular marsh, then:

"They can prioritize which areas they can help protect, which areas they can provide mitigation actions on, and it may not be worth the investment to do it because the processes there are really trending towards a loss of the ecosystem function, and wouldn't be able to be restored without great expense."

You may have noticed that Galen mentioned sea level rise in this example. That's also something that NOAA is playing a major role in helping coastal communities prepare for in the future. Now, you may think that sea level rise is happening pretty much uniformly along our coasts, but that's really not the case. You know how complex the weather can be ... how it can change from one spot to the next, even in areas that are really close together. How our coastal waterways change over time is just as complex. And trying to figure out how sea level rise will affect one small area like Mobile Bay isn't easy. Galen explains how navigation data can help:

"On a global scale, on average, the oceans are rising. That is expressed locally by a whole bunch of different complex interactions, including local currents, and the shape of the ocean basin, the shape of the coastal basin, the inflows from freshwater sources ... that's all going to affect the water levels in a local area. And that's what's important to the people that live there. What's happening right here. And it gets very complex because that can change from one spot on the coast to the next spot on the coast, even if they're relatively close to each other. You can have differing rates of local sea level change because of these different complex factors that all add in to what the water is doing. Same thing for the land. The land elevations are changing over time. In some places like in Alaska, you've got uplift. But specifically in the Gulf Coast, in a lot of places you've got subsidence ... the land is sinking. So when you combine the sinking land with rising water levels, it's a confounding effect. So being able to tease apart how much the water level is rising in a local area and how much the land elevation is changing combined can give you that local rate of sea level rise. But it gets more complex that because the land can also be changing in elevation from one place to another. "

Wow. And that's only a taste of the complexity we're talking about here. Galen also said that where fish and other creatures live now and where they might be living in the future is dynamically changing, and one of the reasons for that is the dynamic nature of water levels changing over time in the Bay. So you can begin to see how the measurements, models, and tools used to help with safe navigation can also lend themselves to solving some of these very localized, very complicated questions that people would like to answer.

So what's the status of the Mobile Bay project now? Well, the field work started last November and is slated to continue through February. Then Galen said pretty much the rest of 2011 will be spent processing data and developing a whole bunch of different products for the local community to use beyond the traditional ones used for navigation.

The big question, of course, is if this project is going to serve as a model for the future.

"Really what we're trying to do is to demonstrate how we can work better together, we can find efficiencies in doing the work we're mandated to do, and we can package it in a way that will provide important information to a whole suite of new customers beyond our traditional navigation customers."

Galen said this project follows a NOAA concept called Integrated Ocean and Coast Mapping. That idea, simply put, is to map an area once in great detail, and use the data you collect many times.

"That's a really important concept here, where we're going out there, we're mapping these things, and we're finding many different uses for them. It's that cross-functional data that we're talking about. So, yes, if we can make it work in Mobile Bay, we are hoping that this will be the model for us to use around the country."

I'd like to thank Galen Scott, team lead for the NOAA Ecosystems and Climate Operations Team and a scientist with the Ocean Service's National Geodetic Survey. Let's hear from Galen one last time.

"I'll tell you, I've been hip-deep in mud doing the kind of work I do out in marshes, which is getting these accurate elevations in marshes, and focused on that one particular piece of the issue, but being able to see what all these other scientists are doing, to see how they collect the currents, how they do the bathymetry, how they create these models from all this information that's being collected, it's really fascinating, and to me it's an exciting project because it's a much bigger picture of the capabilities that NOAA can provide in an integrated fashion."

And thank you for joining us this week. Write to us as if you have any questions or comments and visit us online. Our home on the Web is And don't forget that you can subscribe to this podcast on our website so you'll never miss an episode ... We serve us a feed for your feed reader and we're also on iTunes. Look us up, or get a link right to the iTunes page from our website.

We'll be back in two weeks with another episode. See you then.