Avoid Your Ocean Planning Disaster with Ship Track Data

“Our house, in the middle of our street.” Remember that song from the band Madness in the ‘80s? As a child I remember thinking that song was so silly (I took it quite literally). I mean, who would build a house in the middle of the street? And I know I got that song stuck in your head.

Illustrative image of a house in the middle of the street.
My childhood mental image of a house in the middle of the street.
Automatic Identification System is a Fancy Way of Saying “Ship-Track” Data

As an adult, I concern myself with thinking more about those who are thinking about building wind farms in the middle of the ocean’s highways. Of course there aren’t streets in the ocean, but with Automatic Identification System (AIS) data we have a good idea of where the shipping highways are. AIS data is collected by the U. S. Coast Guard and, with a little processing help from their friends at NOAA and BOEM, planners can now start to visualize where ships hotspots are in the ocean. AIS is a tracking system on commercial ships that collects information such as location, time, ship type, speed, length, beam, and draught. The original intent was to support safe navigation—similar to what the FAA and air traffic controllers use to keep our skies safe. These historical AIS data are now aggregated and made available in GIS-friendly products intended to support ocean planning.

Image of AIS heat map from the Port of Miami.
AIS heat map from the Port of Miami
Rush Hour Traffic in the Ocean? — AIS and Nautical Charts

Another use of the AIS data is helping NOAA prioritize data collection for updating nautical charts. With AIS data, it’s easy to see what areas of the ocean are in high demand. Developing a “heat map” of commercial ship traffic lets the Office of Coast Survey do their part to support safe navigation.

Watch Out for That Whale!

Among other uses, AIS data are also being used along with marine mammal data to study the impacts of ship noise and ship strikes. Shipping routes can be shifted depending on whale migration and frequented feeding and breeding grounds to help minimize impacts to these magnificent creatures. But perhaps it is the ship populations that need to be concerned. I know history books and a popular 1997 film say it was an iceberg that took out the Titanic. But didn’t you catch the alternate ending? Kate and Leo had no idea they were going to cross paths with Moby Dick! He snapped that ship like a twig! Those large cetaceans get rather angry when ships pass through their local watering holes. That disaster might have been avoided with a bit of ocean planning. A little AIS/marine mammal data comparison might have come in handy. Too bad AIS wasn’t available back in those days.

Image of lego figures in a boat.
Hollywood’s alternate ending. (Photo Credit: Eric Constantineau/Flickr)

Your turn to drive. Head over to MarineCadastre.gov and get your own AIS data. Stay clear of those cute marine mammals and wind turbines though. And keep thinking about where you will be building your wind farm (hopefully not in the middle of “the street”).

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