Global Economics Drives U.S. Coast Mapping Effort
The National Ocean Service (NOS), within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), is responsible for generating and managing a wide array of maritime mapping products and services that are accessible to the public for a range of applications, including coastal and marine economic support, environmental protection and restoration, and natural disaster preparedness and response.
An Investment in Up-to-Date Maps
Although the majority of Americans do not use nautical charts on a regular basis, they unknowingly reap the benefits of accurate up-to-date maps of waterways, coastal areas, ports, etc. The NOS is tasked with maintaining these mapping products and services for the good of everyone.
A primary driver behind the production of marine and coastal maps is the global economy, which depends on safe and reliable transportation of goods from Point A to Point B. Businesses rely on maritime mapping information to select the best routes to efficiently use the available shipping assets, which facilitates international trade and helps reduce costs.
NOS activities also focus on the application of innovative solutions to protect the environment while supporting and encouraging coastal tourism. Geospatial and hydrographic products and services are used to improve habitat characterization, coastal planning and other environmental science and policy requirements.
Man-made or natural disasters often strike without warning. NOS strives to acquire pre-event information about high-risk areas to compare to post-event information and make that available to decision makers during response and recovery efforts. Responders make more informed decisions about rescue strategies. Restoration personnel have a better picture of what normal used to be and can match restoration strategies toward that end goal. Before and after data also provide evidence to help government legal teams hold responsible parties accountable.
Acquiring Data from Diverse Sources
To meet its core ocean and coastal mapping mission requirements, NOAA maintains in-house resources to conduct extensive mapping and surveying activities. Qualified private-sector contractors are used to supplement NOAA’s capacity only if necessary and funding is available.
Many of NOAA’s other scientific initiatives are consolidated under one umbrella contract vehicle called Professional and Technical (ProTech) Services. ProTech contracts have a shared maximum ceiling of $3 billion over five years. Teams of companies possessing a range of expertise can become pre-qualified to bid on IDIQ contracts covering five domains: Satellite, Fisheries, Weather, Oceans, and Enterprise Operations.
The ProTech Oceans Domain allows NOS to pursue multiple projects to address economic, environmental and social pressures on U.S. oceans and coasts. Awards have been announced for 24 teams of contractors, each eligible to bid on specific scientific data collection task orders.
Team TBG is one of the award recipients formed to support NOAA’s NOS programs. It consists of 11 scientific, research and geospatial companies focused on oceanic and coastal concerns. The Baldwin Group (TBG) is the prime contractor for this team, joined by other well-known companies such as Woolpert and CDM Smith.
“When we started assembling our team, we took into account all of NOAA’s requirements for NOS missions,” says Dr. Baldwin Tom, president of The Baldwin Group. “The necessary expertise includes data stewardship, environmental program management, ocean observing, and remote sensing, stakeholder engagement, economic assessments—two-thirds of the projects are non-technical. We’re prepared to provide a range of services, from developing new application tools to creating educational materials for public outreach.”
To meet its three primary responsibilities — marine economic support, environmental protection and restoration, and natural disaster preparedness and response—NOS continues to work towards complete data coverage of coasts and oceans and ensure access to mapping products for pre-event and post-event comparisons.
“To address these information access issues, NOS does a fantastic job of collaboration, outreach, education and training to encourage the use of their extensive database,” says Michele A. Finn, Team TBG ProTech Oceans program manager. “To expand coverage, NOS coordinates with other federal and state agencies and with the private sector to prevent duplication of effort and to find efficiencies. Data stewardship and curation processes are constantly undergoing improvement.”
The C-CAP Initiative
NOAA’s Office of Coastal Management (OCM) also plays an important role in processing vital information about U.S. coastal areas through the Coastal Change Analysis Program (C-CAP). C-CAP aids in studying biodiversity, habitat loss and climate, and managing protected areas. Officially the program started in 1995 using 30-meter Landsat imagery to map the coasts, with updates planned every five years. To avoid duplication of effort, in the early 2000’s OCM started to integrate their efforts with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) for inclusion in the National Land Cover Database (NLCD), which also uses 30-meter imagery. Both agencies are currently working on a 2016 update.
Today, demand for high-resolution imagery is growing, particularly of coastal areas, and OCM is working on creative ways to provide more comprehensive geospatial information with a limited budget. Initial work has been focused on using 1-meter National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP) data to produce land cover with six categories: Impervious, Bare, Grass, Shrub, Forest, and Water. The data will be used to derive a 10-meter data set and as a baseline to which additional categories will be added, at increased cost. Through a variety of public-private partnerships and by acquiring existing data from state and local governments, C-CAP is working hard to build a 1-meter land cover database of all coastal areas over the next few years.
“Using the native 1-meter NAIP imagery, we’ll produce a 10-meter and 30-meter land cover product in the short-term, with a full 1-meter class scheme as our end goal,” says John McCombs, senior remote sensing analyst, NOAA Lynker/CSS team. “Initially, EarthDefine, based in Redmond, Wash., is producing the 6-class, 1-meter product for us at an affordable cost, but it requires further editing and is licensed for NOAA only. In the future, we hope to improve and unrestrict the product through NOAA’s budget or by working with states to get additional funding.”
“The program is evolving rapidly to leverage new data opportunities and provide better information. LiDAR data is in big demand so we’re gathering it wherever we can,” McCombs continues. “We search the U.S. Interagency Elevation Inventory, NOAA’s Digital Coast database and USGS CLICK, and we find some datasets at individual state GIS offices.”
The Future of Marine and Coastal Mapping
New geospatial technology is creating more options for data collection than ever before. The Office of Coast Survey and the National Geodetic Survey are collaborating with the Office of Marine and Aviation Operations and the private sector to acquire geospatial imagery from vessel-launched unmanned aerial systems (UAS) while conducting hydrographic surveys on ships and small boats. UASs can be used to improve efficiency and to acquire information from coastal areas where it may be too dangerous to take a launch.
“There are many exciting changes in technology resulting in increased capability at a reduced cost with more high-quality data being produced,” says Finn. “Innovation in marine mapping is creating new opportunities to expand our knowledge.”
Global Efforts Map the Ocean Floor
The bottom of the ocean is the largest uncharted area on our planet. With water covering approximately 70 percent of the Earth, many areas remain a mystery. Several international organizations are joining forces to amend this situation by mapping the 140 million square miles of ocean floor that is 200 m and deeper. The result will be a comprehensive global bathymetric model useful for multiple applications.
A gathering of international scientists and oceanographers at the Forum for Future Ocean Floor Mapping, held in Monaco in June 2016, recognized the importance of deep sea mapping and agreed to develop a program called Seabed 2030. A collaboration between the Nippon Foundation and the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO) was formed to establish a program with the goal of completely mapping the deep seas by the year 2030 with best-achievable resolution. The Nippon Foundation provided an initial grant of $18.5 million.
Measuring the depth of water and modeling the terrain hidden beneath the surface requires different technology than terrestrial mapping. Only sound waves can achieve sufficient propagation to penetrate depths of 200 m or more. Advances in autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) technology, multibeam echo sounders, and Simultaneous Location and Mapping (SLAM) navigation methods are all expanding the boundaries of what is possible.
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