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Re-charted waters: NOAA ship to use sonar to map the bottom of Lake Erie

It's the first trip to the Great Lakes since 1990
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Posted at 2:10 PM, Jun 10, 2022

CLEVELAND — For the first time since the early 1990s, a ship from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will be surveying and mapping the lakebed beneath parts of Lake Erie and the Great Lakes. The mission to update the nautical charts of some of the region’s most traveled waterways is part of a broader effort to better understand the features — and hazards — below the surface.

As the volume and value of the vessels coming in, out and through the Port of Cleveland continue to grow, the accuracy of the nautical charts that mariners use on every voyage has become more important than ever. That’s why NOAA has dispatched one of its four deep-water hygdrographic survey ships, NOAAS Thomas Jefferson, to spend the next several months to map the lakebed. It is the Jefferson’s first trip to the Great Lakes and the first NOAA survey ship since the 1990s.

“The surveys that we’re doing are to update the NOAA nautical charts in the area,” said Ensign Mark Meadows. “We have both electronic and paper copies available for purchase, for use by mariners that navigate any American waters.”

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The 208-foot surveying ship features a dedicated team of more than 30 engineers, analysts and researchers that use different types of sonar to create three dimensional models of the lake-bed. That data, which eventually makes its way onto nautical charts, can show the depth of the water as well as highlight any potential dangers to navigation, large rocks and even shipwrecks.

“You can find anything from a wreck, shifting shoals and depths that have changed,” Meadows said. “You can find large obstructions, rocks, things of that nature. There are a lot of dangers to navigation that we detect and those go directly onto charts and are updated so mariners can navigate safely.”

The Jefferson also has at its disposal two smaller ships that can gather sonar data in waterways too shallow for the larger ship. Together, the Jefferson and its crew of roughly 35 people will survey the waters along the coast of Northeast Ohio, including some of the most widely used routes around Sandusky and the Port of Cleveland.

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Once the data is collected, it is fed into a network of computers where analysts examine the data and prepare it to be charted on-land. Some of the areas identified haven’t been charted since the 1940s.

“Here in Cleveland, we’re updating really old data.,” Meadows said. “There was a lot of stuff that was surveyed with really old techniques. It may be quite some time before a NOAA ship is back here but we’re using really good instruments and really good data so we should be good for quite some time after we’ve surveyed.”

The data collected by the NOAAS Thomas Jefferson isn't solely used by NOAA. Instead, it will be used by a litany of government agencies and other researchers, including fisheries, ice modeling and geologists.