NOAA Nautical Charts Now Permanently Free

Posted by Eric Haun
Tuesday, February 25, 2014
NOAA’s newest addition to the nautical charting portfolio is the new Portable Document Format (PDF) nautical chart, which provides up-to-date navigation information in this universally available file type. The image above is of the Gulf Coast - Key West to Mississippi River. (Credit: NOAA)

After a three-month trial period, PDF versions of NOAA nautical charts will become a permanent product, free to the public. The free PDFs, which are digital images of traditional nautical charts, are especially valued by recreational boaters who use them to plan sailing routes and fishing trips.

The free PDF charts are part of a suite of new and enhanced navigational products designed to make NOAA’s data more accessible to the general public.

“Up to date charts help boaters avoid groundings and other dangers to navigation, so our aim is to get charts into the hands of as many boaters as we can,” said Rear Admiral Gerd Glang, director of NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey. “Within about 90 days of the product’s beta release, nearly 2.3 million charts were downloaded. To us, that represents more than two million opportunities to avoid an accident at sea.”

To help boaters who aren’t sure which chart they need, NOAA has launched a new interactive chart locator that allows people to select a chart from a map of the U.S. and choose their format. Whether downloading one of the new PDF nautical charts, selecting a chart to order from a "print-on-demand" vendor, or finding an electronic chart, the interactive catalog presents a highly integrated suite of navigation products.

NOAA is also making available for free the NOAA ENC Online, a new web map viewing application that shows chart data previously only available to users who purchased specialized viewing systems.

Also the digital charts’ image resolution will increase, from 254 dots per inch (DPI) to 400 DPI. This will improve image quality and legibility of the raster navigational charts (NOAA RNC) that are used in chart display systems. Coast Survey asked users how the changes affected chart appearances on mobile apps. Initial compatibility issues and discrepancies that were identified have been resolved. The suite of RNCs will be upgraded starting April 3.

Printing PDFs may alter the chart scale, color or legibility that may impact suitability for navigation. Printed charts provided by NOAA-certified Print-on-Demand (POD) providers fulfill a vessel's requirement to carry a navigational chart "published by the National Ocean Service" in accordance with federal regulations.

The changes are part of a systematic reconstruction of NOAA’s nautical products, anticipating mariner needs as navigation transitions to a new digital age. Last year, NOAA announced the privatization of chart printing and distribution, with NOAA-certified vendors providing improved paper “print-on-demand” charts that fulfill a vessel's requirement to carry a navigational chart published by the National Ocean Service in accordance with federal regulations.

NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey is the nation’s nautical chartmaker. Originally formed by President Thomas Jefferson in 1807, Coast Survey updates charts, surveys the coastal seafloor, responds to maritime emergencies and searches for underwater obstructions that pose a danger to navigation.

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