Charting and Geodesy

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Nearly 80 percent of U.S. overseas trade by volume travels into and out of the country through our nation’s nearly 400 ports.  Waterborne cargo alone contributes more than $742 billion to the U.S. Gross Domestic Product and is responsible for more than 13 million jobs.  Ensuring that the maritime commerce system is able to operate requires detailed, accurate and up-to-date maps and charts of U.S. waterways.

President Thomas Jefferson understood the value of safe, efficient marine transportation when he created the nation’s first scientific agency, the Survey of the Coast in 1807.  The Survey, now known as the Office of Coast Survey  is an integral part of NOAA’s overall mission to support the nation's commerce with information for safe, efficient and environmentally sound transportation.  The Office of Coast Survey works closely with NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations to chart the 3.4 million square nautical miles in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone.

In creating the nation's nautical charts, NOAA hydrographic survey ships scan the seafloor to identify navigational hazards and obstructions while also acquiring water depth data. Often, NOAA shore-based survey teams are among the first to respond after land-falling hurricanes to help survey and re-open port areas vital to recovery.

Now a separate program, NOAA's National Geodetic Survey also traces its roots to President Jefferson's 1807 Survey of the Coast which established for the United States a national system of coordinates using longitude and latitude that today is know as the National Spatial Reference System.  This grid provides the foundation for all air, land and sea transportation and communications; mapping and charting; and a multitude of scientific and engineering applications.

Among well known examples of this NOAA data are the nation's air traffic transportation management system, coastal levees and building elevations.  This science of geodesy is the basis of all land surveys. These surveys were originally recorded through brass markers that are now being computerized through NOAA's Continuously Operating Reference Station Network, which is based on the rapidly expanding use of the global positioning system (GPS).