nautical charts

NOAA paper charts are dead in the water

Print is dead yet again. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration  announced that beginning in April 2014, it will no longer print the detailed lithographic nautical charts that have been a staple of navigation since 1862. NOAA says that mariners are increasingly forgoing the paper maps in favor of easily updated electronic charts that show multifaceted information. As a final nod to paper, the agency will continue to offer printed charts as a print-on-demand service through private vendors.

According to NOAA, the decision to stop production is based on several factors, including the declining demand for lithographic charts, mariners’ increasing use of digital and electronic charts, and federal budget realities.

NOAA’s Coast Survey cartographers apply tens of thousands of changes to NOAA charts every year, according a NOAA blog post. Some changes are minor, but many are critical to safe navigation, and it can take years before a new chart edition is printed with those updates. But advances in digital printing technology can now deliver NOAA-certified print-on-demand nautical charts, created by NOAA Coast Survey cartographers that have been updated within the week. 

NOAA electronic navigational charts and raster navigational charts, used in a variety of electronic charting systems, are also updated weekly and are available as a free download from the Coast Survey website. NOAA will also announce a new product that will allow for charts stored as PDF files to be downloaded on demand. A trial version of that program is currently free for mariners.

“With the end of traditional paper charts, our primary concern continues to be making sure that boaters, fishing vessels and commercial mariners have access to the most accurate, up-to-date nautical chart in a format that works well for them,” said Capt. Shep Smith, chief of Coast Survey’s Marine Chart Division. “Fortunately, advancements in computing and mobile technologies give us many more options than was possible years ago.”

Smith explained that NOAA will consult with chart users and private businesses about the future of U.S. navigation, especially exploring the use of NOAA charts as the basis for new products.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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