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Science helps make our seas safe

Lillian Borrone
Lillian Borrone

Since colonial times, America’s wealth and prosperity has been tied to the free flow of maritime commerce in and out of U.S. ports. Today, a robust marine transportation system supports the movement of a massive amount of goods across the globe.

Maritime commerce has tripled in the last 50 years and continues to grow. Roughly 95 percent of U.S. overseas trade flows through our nation’s seaports, supporting not only coastal communities, but the import and export needs of industries across the country. Without marine transportation, it would not be possible for wheat grown in Kansas to make its way to buyers on the other side of the world, or for U.S. consumers to access millions of goods, from iPhones, to cars, to clothing.

Activity at American seaports sustains more than 23 million jobs, generates over $320 billion annually in tax revenues, and accounts for 26 percent of the U.S. economy, according to the American Association of Port Authorities. From tide charts to real-time oceanographic models, the marine transportation system relies on up-to-date information to efficiently traverse the globe. Yet, without the right tools and underlying science, the safety and economic benefits of marine transportation would be undermined.

In an industry where time is money, disruptions and delays from collisions, storms and unfavorable seas can have substantial financial costs and safety implications. A better understanding of oceanic and atmospheric conditions is crucial for reducing accidents and enhancing efficiency. For example, high frequency radars enable real-time surface current mapping, which aids in port and harbor navigation, search and rescue, and oil-spill response, all of which are critical to marine operations.

Detailed nautical charts alert mariners of possible obstructions that lurk below the waves and reduce the risk of accidents. But these charts are only as good as the accuracy of the information that underpins them. In a dynamic system, frequent scientific surveys of the seafloor are essential to maintaining up-to-date charts. Improving our understanding of the seabed can also help inform decisions on when and where to invest in dredging activities, which can allow for the passage of increasingly larger ships.

Port operators and ships also rely on software like NOAA’s Physical Oceanographic Real-Time System (PORTS) to safely navigate U.S waters. PORTS measures and disseminates observations and predictions of water levels, currents, salinity and meteorological parameters that mariners need to navigate safely.

Navigational safety depends on mariner awareness of other ships and activities at sea. The U.S. Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Information project integrates navigation information into an efficient electronic service that easily interfaces with existing navigation and logistics systems.

Beyond navigational safety and efficiency, science can help address other issues in maritime commerce. For example, research on invasive species has resulted in simple management measures for the shipping industry, like flushing and refilling ballast water in the open ocean before arriving in a new port. Scientific data also helps federal agencies develop plans to protect our port and shipping infrastructure from natural disasters, terrorist attacks and cyber intrusions.

The competitiveness of U.S. farmers and manufacturers depends on strong American ports and a thriving shipping industry. Advancements in our ability to monitor, understand and disseminate information about ocean conditions are crucial to the safe and efficient movement of goods across the globe. Investments in scientific research are critical to refining our navigation, information and security tools and likely hold the key to developing new ones.

Lillian Borrone worked for 30 years at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, chaired the Eno Center for Transportation, and is a member of the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative.

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