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Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping/Joint Hydrographic Center

By David Sims
Science Writer
Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space
University of New Hampshire

The last 10 years have brought about a sea change in the world of hydrography and ocean mapping, and the University of New Hampshire's (UNH) Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping/Joint Hydrographic Center (CCOM/JHC) has played a vital role.

Guided by a 1999 memorandum of understanding with NOAA, and recently continued through a five-year competitive grant from the agency, the center began building its staff in January 2000. Today, it is a world-class research and teaching facility that trains the nation's future hydrographers. It is also one of only two U.S. institutions that have been awarded a Category A certificate for education in hydrography, the highest level of international recognition in the field.

The center is at the leading edge in developing tools that are streamlining the processing of multibeam echosounding data and transforming this wealth of information into rich, 3D seafloor maps. At the same time, under the rubric of Integrated Ocean and Coastal Mapping (IOCM)—in other words, 'map once, use the data many times'—the center continues to advance the field of hydrography by making multibeam data applicable to purposes other than chart making, for example, in fisheries management.

The relevance of the IOCM approach became apparent in July, when scientists from the center applied tools developed for hydrography and fisheries work to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster. Among other work, the researchers used sonar to look for gas leaks after the well was capped and evaluated the use of sonar techniques to help track subsurface plumes of oil.
The Science on a Sphere exhibit includes global ocean currents animation created by Colin Ware of CCOM/JHC. It lets visitors witness the ocean's constant motion and interaction with land and the atmosphere through data and imaging. (Photo courtesy of Chip Clark, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History)

IOCM: It's the Law
The IOCM approach is now codified in U.S. law through the Ocean and Coastal Mapping Integration Act—in large part due to recommendations made by the National Research Council's Committee on National Needs for Coastal Mapping and Charting, which Larry Mayer, CCOM/JHC founding director, chaired. The committee's findings concluded that multiple agencies were collecting mapping data and often duplicating efforts.

'Data collected in support of safe navigation have many other valuable uses, particularly at the kind of density we're able to achieve using multibeam echosounding and side scan sonar,' Mayer said.

Mayer notes that, from the start, he felt strongly that part of the center's job was to 'sometimes challenge NOAA in the ways they do things traditionally. Hydrography is a very traditional business.'

To be sure, NOAA has embraced the new, integrated approach, but it can be difficult, both financially and technically, to optimize a surveying expedition to achieve multiple outcomes. JHC founding co-director Andrew Armstrong of NOAA says that different funding streams and performance expectations make the integrated approach challenging, 'but there are things we can do and technology that can be developed here at the center that will greatly increase the effectiveness and make IOCM much easier.'

To that end, the recent addition to the center's ocean engineering laboratory, the Integrated Ocean and Coastal Mapping Processing Center, will help move this integrated approach forward.

'Our vision for the new center is to have people from the divisions at NOAA in the offices as our customers,' Mayer explained. 'Together, we'll develop the protocols and tools to take data collected in support of safe navigation, which Coast Survey has been doing for centuries, and figure out what's needed to make products useful for fisheries, ocean exploration or sanctuaries, for example. We'll design the software and products to meet their needs with their direct input and feedback.'

Already, staff from NOAA's Office of Coast Survey and the NOAA Ocean Exploration program have been assigned to CCOM/JHC. The Coast Survey team is working on new products from the agency's nautical charting surveys while the Ocean Exploration team is processing multibeam echosounding data collected on NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer. The data from the Okeanos Explorer can be transmitted to the new center via a telepresence console (which gives those at CCOM/JHC full, high-bandwidth video and audio communication with the vessel). There, new products specific to ocean exploration and the Okeanos Explorer team will be developed.

Innovation and New Tools
CCOM/JHC researchers are already providing new tools to help agencies like NOAA make the most of enhanced mapping technologies.

Chart from a Hydrographic Field Course survey of the harbor of Castine, Maine, and the Bagaduce River, made at the invitation of the Maine Maritime Academy. (Image courtesy of CCOM/JHC 2009 Hydrographic Field Course). Click to enlarge.

For example, the center recently undertook a major effort to develop improved processing methods to handle the plethora of multibeam and side scan sonar data being collected by modern technologies. Hand-processing this data presents one of the most serious bottlenecks in the hydrographic data 'processing pipeline' at NOAA, the Naval Oceanographic Office, and other hydrographic agencies and survey companies worldwide.

After exploring a number of different approaches for automated data processing, the center focused its efforts on a tool developed by UNH research associate professor Brian Calder. Known as the Combined Uncertainty and Bathymetric Estimator (CUBE), the algorithm is both very fast and statistically robust. Following careful verification and evaluation, CUBE and a new database approach known as the Navigation Surface have become part of the standard processing protocols. Nearly every hydrographic software producer has incorporated these tools into their products or plans to do so in the near future.

These new developments are revolutionizing the way the ocean mapping community is practicing hydrography by greatly reducing data-processing time and providing a quantification of uncertainty never before achievable in hydrographic data.

Bringing the Seafloor to Life
Maps are visual tools, and over the past decade, seafloor maps have been brought to stunning, three-dimensional life. CCOM/JHC has played a major role in that development.

In addition to creating tools like CUBE that allow the profusion of multibeam data to be quickly and accurately processed, the center has led the way in turning the raw data into rich visual imagery.

'A modern map is not a piece of paper, it's an interactive image on a computer screen,' said Colin Ware, director of the center's Data Visualization Research Lab (VisLab). Ware has been instrumental in developing a number of innovative approaches to the interactive, 3D visualization of large datasets.

Ware's animation of global ocean currents was incorporated two years ago in a room-sized exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History. The 'Science on a Sphere' exhibit, created by NOAA, helps visitors understand how ocean waters flow around the planet.

Ware notes that, at its heart, visualization is a 'bridge' to the data in that 'you simply don't see the geology without it.'

Innovations the VisLab has come up with, such as GeoZui-4D (a highly interactive 4D visualization system that incorporates time-varying data), are opening up new possibilities.

'Our job is to push the limits of the technology so that the image is not just of the seafloor, but also the water column and things that vary in time in the water column—schools of fish, ocean currents, whales, etc.,' Ware said.

Beyond developing new tools for better hydrography, CCOM/JHC is also taking the lead U.S. role in collecting multibeam bathymetry and acoustic backscatter data that will define the limits of an extended continental shelf under Article 76 of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The maps created from these data will help expand the nation's sovereign rights over the resources of the seafloor and subsurface, including areas of the Arctic that are only recently becoming accessible due to accelerated melting of sea ice.

'The Law of the Sea has provided a mechanism to map the seafloor in a more expansive and systematic way than ever before,' Mayer said.

For several years, Mayer has been conducting Law of the Sea mapping in the Arctic aboard the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy in conjunction with Armstrong. UNH research professor James Gardner also led additional Law of the Sea cruises to the North, South and western Pacific oceans; the northeast Atlantic Ocean; and the Gulf of Mexico. The total global seafloor area mapped by the center covers more than 1.3 million square kilometers.

Training Tomorrow's Hydrographers
Just as IOCM is leading the way into the future of hydrography and ocean mapping, the center is at the forefront of training the people who will do the work.

CCOM/JHC is one of only three centers of excellence in hydrography and ocean mapping in North America and is unique in its interdisciplinary, research-oriented academic approach.

Every year, graduate students typically include NOAA uniformed officers, physical scientists and survey technicians, along with more traditional students (coming directly from undergraduate programs or after several years of working in hydrographically related fields). The center also has half a dozen international students from the Nippon Foundation/General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO) training program.

In 2004, the center was selected to host the GEBCO program through an international competition, which included most of the leading hydrographic centers in the world.

Because CCOM/JHC is by nature an interdisciplinary research center, students are exposed to both the broad spectrum of research topics being pursued by faculty and staff and the latest in technologies provided by a large group of industrial partners.

'Our interdisciplinary academic and research programs allow students to see a full range of subjects from start to finish,' said Calder, the developer of CUBE. 'And, as faculty, because we're doing research and this informs our teaching, we're not just training students how hydrography is being done now, but how it will be done in the future.'

David Sims is the science writer for the University of New Hampshire Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space.

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