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Making Waves: Episode 100 (June 28, 2012)

This is Making Waves from NOAA’s National Ocean Service. I’m Troy Kitch. And this is the 100th episode of this podcast.   Yep, we’ve been doing this since Fall 2008.

Over the years, we’ve talked about most of the things we do at the ocean service … we’ve covered all kinds of topics like ocean science, geodesy, tides and currents, coastline surveys, nautical charts, coastal services, sanctuaries, marine protected areas … but we’ve rarely stepped back to get the big picture about what the ocean service is about.  Now, the problem with that is that we do a lot of different things, it’s not so easy to wrap this up in a short podcast.

We’re not going to do that today. What we’re going to do is focus in on one really large and important part of what we do … our marine navigation services.
And to help us do that, we’re joined by Dr. Holly Bamford, deputy assistant administrator of the National Ocean Service – our second in command. Holly’s job is about making sure that the Ocean Service provides the best available science and tools to support the nation’s coasts and oceans. That ranges from:

[Dr. Holly Bamford] “… Navigational services such as nautical charts and tides and currents, all the way to special places like sanctuaries and coastal management – working directly with coastal communities to support decisions that are relevant to coastal economies and the environment.”

Meet Holly. I recently spoke with her by phone while she was taking part in a Hydrographic Services Review Panel meeting in Alaska. This was really a great place to catch up with her because this review panel is in many ways at the heart of our navigation services—you’ll find out how in a minute.  And with sea ice melting in the Arctic, ocean navigation in Alaska – in this part of the world – it’s growing more important every year.

Now, there are a few things you need to know about the Hydrographic Services Review Panel.  First, it’s an advisory committee, it’s set up by law, and it meets a couple of times a year. Second, the panel is made up of:

[Dr. Holly Bamford] “our customers and the people we work with that not only help us gather navigational data, but are people that also use it, like pilots and people that are navigating our coastal waters.”

In other words, the panel isn’t made up of federal employees.  The people on the panel are in the private sector and in academia – they’re maritime and coastal experts. Their job is to represent all of those who rely on our nautical charts, our tides and currents, and our elevation data each and every day to get their job done.

[Dr. Holly Bamford] “And so they provide recommendations and guidance to NOAA on our products and how they’re doing, how they’re used, and where we can actually do better. It’s not an insular process, but it really looks to the public – you know, we are civil servants, and we look to the public to provide us with the best available recommendations to tell us how we’re doing, are we hitting the mark? And if we’re not, tell us and we will make improvements within our mandates. It’s our responsibility to take those recommendations and turn them into actions.”

This panel doesn’t always meet in Alaska. They usually meet up in different coastal areas.

[Dr. Holly Bamford] “And what that does is it helps us get a better understanding of not only the national perspective but the regional needs of and regional gaps in our data  -- and how do we go about working within regions to adapt our products to meet those gaps.”

And that’s important because NOAA’s navigation services are provided for the whole country. And it’s a big country. So we need to make sure that what we’re doing is really what people along the coasts of the nation need now and tomorrow – into the future. And that brings us back to Alaska.  Holly said at the previous panel meeting held in Norfolk, Virginia in 2011:

[Dr. Holly Bamford] “We talked a lot about issues in Norfolk, but we were talking about what’s going to be on the horizon, and the Arctic came up. And so we thought it was very timely and relevant that the panel come to Alaska and actually hear from local folks about the huge problems that they foresee as the Northwest Passage opens up and we increase commerce and, with the melting of the ice, the impacts to the environment that’s going to have on this region.”

During her trip to Alaska, Holly saw first-hand some of the issues that Alaskans are facing. She visited Homer, where daily tides can change up to 28 feet. She stopped through a NOAA research lab in Katsitsna Bay, where people were learning how to dive in icy waters with extremely strong currents. They need to do this to examine how underwater habitat is changing as ocean pH, salinity, and temperatures fluctuate because of melting sea ice.  And she saw how coastal communities in Alaska are facing unprecedented erosion and inundation from rising sea levels and ice melt. She said that getting the job done in Alaska means working together and doing things differently.

[Dr. Holly Bamford] “So, traditionally [what] NOAA brings to the table is our nautical charts, our tides and current data, and our coastline surveys – the elevations. And so all of these things together provide the baseline tools for charting coastal waters.  And so this is very important and very relevant for an area like Alaska, which is highly variable. The shorelines are changing on an annual basis; they’re seeing sea level change, inundation, coastal changes. So we provide the baseline, but what I’ve also found out being up here, is that it is a heavily collaborative region. I mean you cannot do anything alone. So NOAA would not be successful without the huge collaborative nature that Alaska brings to the table. We are meeting right now with the Army Corps, the Coast Guard, with local pilots, local communities because it’s really rallying around a centralized problem of what we’re going to do as the Northwest Passage opens, ice continues to melt, and we’re going to have to deal with the challenges that we foresee in the future. "

Focusing on challenges of the future is the key here. This recent Hydrographic Services Review Panel meeting was really a launching point for a bigger effort in the National Ocean Service that’s about refocusing efforts on meeting navigation needs for the long-term. It’s what Holly calls ‘positioning America for the future.’

[Dr. Holly Bamford] “We want to think five, ten, 15, 20 years down the road of where we’re going to be and where we want to be. People are coming more and more to the coasts; goods and services come in and out of ports every day [and that is] growing. Up here in Alaska, we heard that 80 percent of what goods and services come into Anchorage comes through the port of Anchorage. If they don’t have those ports open with four days, goods are off the shelves here. I mean, that is how critical it is to moving goods and services in and out of this country. So we know there’s going to be challenges as sea ice continues to melt and the Northwest Passage opens up, increasing commerce. So what we need to do is be prepared for the future. We don’t need to know what’s going to happen tomorrow. We need to know what’s going to happen 15 and 20 years from now, and have the tools, technology, and innovative research to develop those things so we’re ready and prepared to provide that information to this region.”

She said that part of this challenge is about thinking of better ways to do business.  Let’s take nautical charts as an example. Holly said that a new nautical chart can take up to two years to develop – and for many places in Alaska that are now seeing more ship traffic every year because of melting ice – some of these areas haven’t been surveyed in well over a hundred years and some even longer. Now, a nautical chart contains a lot of detailed information. Charts 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. Now the thing is that hydrographic surveying data that’s collected when updating nautical charts – it’s really useful stuff.  It can be used by other groups of people for other purposes, like learning more about underwater habitats.
[Dr. Holly Bamford] "We’re resource strapped as agencies and so we have to look to each other to be very innovative on what we can bring to the table and think outside the box a little bit. If we’re going to do some mapping, we need to maintain the backscatter to look at habitat changes. I mean, this is not just utilizing data for one particular purpose – and that’s more of the non-traditional part of what NOAA brings to the table is that we’re more and more providing multiple uses for single sets of data, and so that’s the direction we need to move. We can’t just map once for one thing, we have to map once for many uses."

Holly also said that ‘positioning for the future’ is also about making sure NOS has the right tools and technologies to do the job. Now, this raises an interesting point that many people don’t realize. Because we work in tough areas in places like Alaska and in the extreme depths of the ocean, this leads to some rather unique tech and expertise. For instance, she said that in Alaska:

[Dr. Holly Bamford] “We have to develop pressurized sensors so we can measure currents underneath ice, and we have to perfect this so we can get the appropriate and most accurate measurements. And when you look at that, the information that we can gain here can really support everywhere along the nations coast.”

She also pointed out that NOAA navigational services are often tapped for tasks totally unrelated to traditional navigation services – so, in this way, NOAA ocean expertise touches those who live even far from the coast.  And she gave an example. Take our coast survey teams – these are teams we have around the country that are called out for emergency response to map out hazards to navigation after events like hurricanes. Holly said that these teams are called up at times to map debris and locate the ‘black boxes’ after aircraft crashes in the ocean.

[Dr. Holly Bamford] “The fact that we have the technology to go down there and pull up critical information from such incidents provides information on that accident that can change the way a plane is built in the future.  And so that’s something, when you look at the technology we have to have for the ocean, how that relates to everybody on land.  If there are issues with those planes, you want to know that you have the technology and understanding to change that. And the way we’re able to do that is through some of the work we’ve done at NOS.”

Let’s wrap it up by pulling back our focus a bit. Navigation services are a big part of what NOS is all about. Every year, ships move $1.4 trillion dollars worth of products in and out of U.S. ports around the nation.  And that ship traffic is going to keep increasing. The stuff on the shelves in the big box stores that you shop for? Most of those items arrived at a port in a ship. Well, NOS is integral for keeping this ship traffic moving along. Every day, emergency planners and water authorities rely on NOS global positioning data that is accurate down to the centimeter. Every hour, people rely on real-time water levels for accurate weather forecasts, storm and flood prediction, and tsunami warning. Holly said that the idea behind positioning America for the future is how the National Ocean Service is thinking about and gearing up for not what we need tomorrow, but what we need long down the road to keep meeting these needs.
[Dr. Holly Bamford] “We’re here to provide the best available information and do the best job we can in preparing our coastal oceans and our coastal economies and our coastal communities for the future. And that’s really what we’re in the business of doing.”

That was Dr. Holly Bamford, deputy assistant administrator for the National Ocean Service. And that is episode #100 of Making Waves. If you have any questions about this episode, about our oceans, or about the National Ocean Service, you can reach us at Don’t forget that you can subscribe to us on iTunes. We’re on iTunes, we’re in the iTunes education store, and we have an RSS feed available for Making Waves and for our sister podcast, Diving Deeper, which you don’t want to miss. I hope you know you can reach us at on the internet. And if you’re socially inclined, you can catch up with us on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, and Youtube. You can find us at USOCEANGOV. That’s USOCEANGOV – all one word. Hope to see you there.

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