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Making Waves: Episode 40 (November 25, 2009)


Happy Thanksgiving from all of us here at the National Ocean Service. Most of us at NOS will be off spending time with our families and loved ones over the long holiday weekend – and we hope you are too.

This week we're going to replay an episode that originally ran last Thanksgiving. It aired when the podcast was just starting out, so many of you probably didn't hear it.

It's about something so big that it adds over a trillion dollars to our Gross Domestic Product each year. It's so vast that it surrounds our nation and crisscrosses the continent. And it directly affects each and every one of us. Chances are, it played a role in delivering the turkey to your table this year.

Know what it is? I'll give you a hint: it has something to do with the ocean. It's November 25th, 2009, and this is the Thanksgiving edition of Making Waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service.

(The Maritime Transportation System)

OK, the special topic of the day is the nation's Maritime Transportation System. We're talking about all the ships and barges that carry goods and people around the nation. And we're talking about a huge, complex web of shipping lanes, rivers, canals, and dams that those ships and barges use every day.

By weight, our marine highways carry more than three-quarters of all u.s. Goods and supplies. And it's estimated that this system generates more than 13 million jobs.

So chances are that some of your thanksgiving meal, your clothes, and the fuel for your car got to you in part thanks to this vast watery network.

If you think this system is big today, it's expected to double or even triple by 2020. That's a lot of ships and barges moving around the ocean.

And those ships keep getting bigger — they've doubled in length, width, and depth over the past 50 years.

Ships today draw up to 60 feet of water — that's like having a five-story building under the waves. Sometimes these massive ships only have inches between their hulls and the channel bottoms when they come into port.

And don't forget that all of those ships and barges are sharing the waterways with over 78 million recreational boaters.

(NOS and the Maritime Transportation System)

So what's our role in the Maritime Transportation System? Well, the men and women of the national ocean service provide the tools and services to help all of these floating vessels get around safely — and NOS helps clean-up when accidents happen.

You've heard of GPS – the Global Positioning System. Well, the National Geodetic Survey, manages the National Spatial Reference System. This system makes GPS more accurate — we're talking big improvements here. It's the difference between a system that provides positioning within many meters of accuracy, to a system that is accurately pinpoints your location within centimeters.

The Ocean Service also maintains our nation's nautical charts. That's through the Office of Coast Survey. Charts today are pretty high-tech. You can get a chart printed on paper if you want it, but many mariners today use digital charts.

A mariner today can use a NOAA nautical chart to show exactly where a ship is in relation to its surroundings, to sound alarms if the ship strays to close to dangerous areas and to get information about warnings and regulations in transit areas. And of course those charts have to be constantly updated — because the ocean and the things in it never stand still. That job falls to Coast Survey, too.

And speaking of never standing still, the Ocean Service is the place to get tides and currents information thanks to the work of the Center for Operational and Oceanographic Products and Services. And one of the coolest tools developed by this office is called PORTS® – that stands for Physical Oceanographic Real-time System. What these systems do is provide real-time information about ocean water levels, currents, salinity, wind, and bridge clearances to help get ships safely get in and out of busy ports.

But of course, even with all of these tools and services, accidents still happen. About 75 percent of commercial accidents are caused by human error. And when those accidents cause spills of oil or other hazardous material, the NOS Office of Response and Restoration steps in to lend a hand to clean up and to help the environment around the spill recover.

So there you have it. Know you know what the ocean service has to do with your turkey dinner.


And that's all for this episode.

Remember to email us with questions about the ocean service, the ocean, our web site, or just drop us a line to tell us what you think of making waves – we'd love to hear from you. Our website, by the way is at And you can email us a

Now let's bring in the ocean (add ship sound) ... This is making waves from NOAA's National Ocean Service. See you next time.