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Arctic Charting        

Arctic Charting

(from AMSA Report 2009)


Hydrography is the oldest science of the sea. The earliest explorers were often hydrographers and cartographers who recorded their discoveries on marine charts, sometimes to claim new territory, and always to ensure safe passage.

Modern marine charts are compiled from accurate hydrographic surveys conducted onboard specialized vessels equipped with echo sounders that measure water depths and satellite navigation systems, such as the Global Positioning System (GPS), that determine the geographic positions of these soundings. Numerous other sources of information are used in the creation of charts, such as shoreline location, details of navigational aids, place names, conspicuous land-based features, overhead cables and underwater pipelines. Data on navigational charts are also corrected for the movement of tides, such that the depth portrayed is normally the minimum the mariner will find under the keel. Expert information specialists combine all these various sources of data into navigational charts, taking extreme care to ensure the information is clear and accurate for use by mariners. The collection of the hydrographic data required and the process to produce a new navigational chart can often take years.

In light of the limited amount of marine traffic, the historical survey methods (ship-based and ice-based) and the significant costs and the volatility of the weather conditions, hydrographic surveys in the Arctic have not achieved the same level of coverage and quality as surveys in southern latitudes. As a result, Arctic charting base hydrographic data is not adequate in most areas to support current and future marine activities. This situation could improve if collection methods and platforms were developed that would be minimally affected by the Arctic conditions of weather, ice and isolation.

For hundreds of years, navigation at sea has relied upon the manual plotting of vessel location on traditional paper charts. Modern Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems (ECDIS), combined with satellite-based positioning, bring hydrographic data into onboard computers, greatly improving the navigation information available to the mariner and potentially reducing the reliance on traditional aids, such as floating buoys and fixed lights. Advances are also being made in consolidating information such as weather and ice conditions into electronic charting systems, further assisting mariners.

Recognizing the benefits of electronic charts, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has proposed compulsory carriage of ECDIS and Electronic Navigational Charts (ENCs) on high speed craft from July 1, 2008 onward for all new craft and from July 1, 2010 onward for existing craft. In addition, IMO’s Safety of Navigation Subcommittee has reached consensus to implement the mandatory carriage of ECDIS on new passenger ships above 500 gross tonnage by 2012, with a broadening of this requirement in subsequent years.

Arctic nations report various levels of ENC coverage for their northern waters (Maps 9.1, 9.2, 9.3). The presence of an ENC does not guarantee adequate information for safe navigation, however, as they are normally created using the same information available on traditional charts. As previously mentioned, the hydrographic data in many Arctic locations is either non-existent or in serious need of improvement.

Increased Arctic activity coupled with the difficulties in deploying and maintaining navigational aids in the region, presents an opportunity to implement ECDIS to improve navigation safety and save costs. The benefits of ECDIS, however, are wholly dependent on the underlying hydrographic navigational charts and consequently the hydrographic data on which they are based. Coverage of GPS, or other means of positioning, is also crucial to take full advantage of the system.

Canada, the United States, the Russian Federation and Denmark are carrying out charting activities that include portions of the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage. These countries, as well as Iceland and Norway, are all member states of the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) whose mission “is to facilitate the provision of adequate and timely hydrographic information for worldwide marine navigation.”

While there are published charts whose physical limits cover both the Canadian Northwest Passage and the Russian Northern Sea Route, the quality of the underlying data varies widely from modern, high resolution hydrographic surveys to no sounding information in some areas.

The quality and accuracy of navigational charts is entirely dependent on the hydrographic data used to compile them. Hydrographic surveys in the Arctic are logistically very complicated, expensive to undertake and highly dependent on weather and ice conditions. In addition, hydrographic offices normally prioritize their efforts based on a risk classification approach. Because the Arctic has traditionally seen smaller volumes of marine traffic, these risks have been perceived as low compared to other regions and progress in improving hydrographic coverage in the Arctic has been painstakingly slow.

IHO provides the current state of hydrographic surveys for member countries throughout the world. In Greenland, the limit for navigable waters has been set to 75 degrees northern latitude due to the permanent ice cover and the sparse population of its east coast. Within Canada, a high proportion of Arctic waters are inadequately surveyed or covered by frontier surveys only. A similar situation exists in the Russian Federation where ice conditions have precluded the systematic survey of the central parts of the Laptev and East Siberian seas. Only passage sounding data is available for the deep water areas of the Sea of Okhotsk and the Bering Sea. The following figures illustrate the status of individual countries.

The Canadian Hydrographic Service reports that 10 percent of the Canadian Arctic has been surveyed to modern standards (Map 9.1). Coverage is often minimal and collected using rudimentary equipment and methods.

Surveys of the U.S. Arctic have been predominately along the northern coast of Alaska (Map 9.2).

The Russian Federal State Unitary “Hydrographic Enterprise” (SHD), formerly known as the Hydrographic Department, has conducted surveys since 1933. For the main areas of the Arctic shelf that cover 90 percent of the traditional navigation routes, detailed underwater topography is available (Map 9.3). Coastal surveys are completed for the Chukchi Sea, the East Siberian Sea, the Kara Sea, the navigable part of the Gulf of Ob’, the shipping channel of the Yenisei River up to the port of Igarka, the shipping channel of the Khatanga and Kolyma rivers and the entrance of the Bykovsky waterway from the sea to the delta of the Lena River.

The SHD has set modern standards for Russian hydrographic surveys that recommend survey methods to ensure the detection of all underwater obstacles on routes of intense navigation. To meet these modern standards, charts will need to be updated and, in the near future, an appreciable amount of work will have to be done. This includes detailed surveys of recommended shipping routes, harborages and anchorages for cargo operations using an instrumental area survey by special hydrographic equipment; regular measurement in areas not yet surveyed or surveyed with poor accuracy and details; and regular measurements in regions that are difficult to access because of ice conditions.

As mariners traverse the waters of nations around the world, they must be able to reliably interpret hydrographic products, independent of the country of origin. By becoming members of the International Hydrographic Organization, hydrographic offices agree to achieve uniformity in data quality and presentation standards. The emergence of digital products, most importantly electronic charts, has introduced a new aspect to the dissemination of hydrographic data. While a convergence of data sharing approaches is underway, significant inconsistencies remain. The Arctic provides an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the benefits of an open approach to data sharing in the international hydrographic community.


    Arctic Council, 2009, Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA), Arctic Council.©

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