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NOAA shows off high-tech ships tasked for mapping ocean floor

NOAA ship Fairweather can be seen from the bridge of NOAA ship Rainier as they sit in port in Newport, Oregon on Wednesday, March 21, 2018. The two ships are used to make detailed maps of the ocean floor. (KATU Photo)

New gold-plated bells were installed Wednesday on the bows of two science ships to mark their 50th anniversary.

The Fairweather and the Rainier are National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration hydrographic survey ships that make detailed maps of the ocean floor.

The two ships are docked at NOAA’s Marine Operations Center, preparing for a surveying trip up and down the West Coast. Smaller boats will be loaded onto the ships to aid in the mission.

The ships are well used but well loved. There’s still some of the original furniture from when the ships were commissioned together in 1968.

During those early days, scientists used lead lines to take measurements. Today, they use sonar, GPS and digital map reproduction.

The information they gather can make a difference in how much you pay for seafood.

“The shape of the seafloor is very significant for fisheries, because based on the shape and composition of the sea floor, you can tell a lot about what sorts of fish, what sorts of ecosystems, would be on the seafloor. So we’re doing a lot of work to support those scientific missions as well,” said Benjamin Evans, commander of the Rainier.

The information is also used for safety and security for those who travel via the sea.

“It’s not just the big ships, but also the fishing communities like Newport, where the safety of the people going in and out of Yaquina Bay every day is impacted by the accuracy of our charts,” said Mark Van Waes, commander of the Fairweather.

Making those charts still involves old-school paper maps, but it’s the high-resolution sonar systems collecting billions of bits of information, deeper and wider than ever before, that makes the difference.

There have been other advances as well, like the Automatic Identification System, or AIS.

“What routes are being traveled the most frequently, by what draft of ship, what type of ship? We take that information and feed it to the decision makers to figure out where we survey,” Waes said.

Since 1807, the first time Thomas Jefferson founded a survey of the coast, it’s work that’s needed to be done, and that’s not likely to change.

“Certainly the political winds have wandered significantly over 211 years, and it’s been important for that entire time,” Evans said. “Our mission hasn’t changed, and it doesn’t change from one administration to another.”

But the way the mission is carried out might. The commanders said the ships should be in service for at least a few more years, but the future of ocean surveying may be headed in the direction of unmanned ships.

The Fairweather and Rainier will leave Newport sometime this spring and won’t be back in port until the fall.

You have a chance to see them and meet the crew. Tours are open to the public Thursday, March 22, 2018 from 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m.

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