NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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NOAA Corps: 100 Years of Service

NOAA Ship rainer on ocean. Image credit: NOAA.

NOAA Ship Rainier is a hydrographic survey vessel that maps the ocean to aid maritime commerce, improve coastal resilience, and understand the marine environment. Rainier’s officers, technicians, and scientists log the data that NOAA cartographers use to create and update the nation’s nautical charts with ever-increasing data richness and precision. Image credit: NOAA.

By Ensign Matthew Bissell, NOAA Corps

Can you name the seven uniformed services of the United States?

Most likely, you can name five—Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard. You may even get to six if you know that the U.S Public Health Service has a uniformed division.

What is that seventh uniformed service?

Don’t feel bad if you can’t come up with it, you are not alone, even some members of the  military haven’t heard of the NOAA Corps, despite the service approaching its 100-year anniversary.

I experienced the Corps’ low profile first hand when I showed up for my physical screening at the military’s processing station in Los Angeles, California. I was denied entry because the security guard didn’t believe the NOAA Corps was a uniformed service. I only gained entry after proving its existence by pulling up a Wikipedia entry on my phone.

My NOAA Corps affiliation didn’t get me much further once inside.  All the other recruits received nametags that read Air Force, Coast Guard, or Marines, mine read XXX. I got more than a few questions about my Xs that day and my responses varied greatly—some more creative than others.

At that early stage in my NOAA Corps career, even I was largely unaware of the rich history and incredibly valuable service I was to become part of.

The Civil War to World War I

NOAA Corps officially began on May 22, 1917 (46 days after the nation entered World War I). To understand the origins of NOAA, and its commissioned Corps, we need to go even further back in history, to 1807 when President Thomas Jefferson signed a bill initiating the first survey of the nation’s coast. The result was the formation of the U.S. Survey of the Coast, later named the U.S. Coast Survey—the nation’s oldest scientific federal agency.

Initially consisting of civilian surveyors, cartographers, and engineers, as well as commissioned officers from the Army and Navy, the agency charted the nation’s waterways.

Once the Civil War erupted in 1861 the Army and Navy officers in the Coast Survey were recalled to their respective services. The survey’s remaining civilians volunteered their skills in support of the Union, serving in both the Army and Navy. In addition to providing valuable mapping and charting services to the Union forces, these civilian surveyors participated in naval blockades and other major offensive actions.

Army commands gave Coast Surveyors military rank while the Navy refused, leaving some coast surveyors in jeopardy of being hung as spies if captured.

When the war ended, the civilian surveyors and Naval officers returned to their charting mission. The scope of this work had now expanded to include a survey of the nation’s interior. In 1878 the U.S. Coast Survey was renamed the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey to reflect this new responsibility.

Naval officers were again withdrawn for the Spanish-American War, never to return to the survey. For the next two decades, civilians were in command of the survey ships.

Then in 1915, Ernest Lester Jones, referred to as the father of the NOAA Corps, became director of the organization. With the nation’s involvement in World War I looming, one of Jones’s first actions as director was to publish the coast survey’s contributions to the Civil War. A step that eventually led to establishing the organization as a commissioned service.

Historical photo of old ship. Image credit: NOAA.

Coast and Geodetic Survey Ship SURVEYOR off Norfolk, Virginia, in 1919, showing Star and Chevron on stack for having taken part in WWI combat operations in the North Atlantic. Image credit: NOAA Photo Library.

NOAA Corps is born

In May 1917, a law established the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey as a commissioned, uniformed service allowing integration into other uniformed services and removing the threat of spying accusations if captured in the line of duty.

When we entered World War I, many survey officers assumed vital roles within the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. This integration into other services repeated during World War II.

After each wartime involvement, survey officers resumed their peacetime duties of surveying the nation’s coasts. These duties evolved to include worldwide oceanographic cruises, arctic expeditions, and national defense projects.

In 1970, a national scientific agency merger created the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the survey became NOAA Corps.

The Corps today

Throughout the last 100 years, NOAA Corps officers have continued the important work of surveying the nation’s waterways and ensuring safe and open navigation for maritime commerce.

In addition to surveying, NOAA Corp officers serve as operational specialists aboard the nation’s research ships and airplanes, as well as in land-based positions within NOAA’s other divisions. Typically, a NOAA Corp officer will rotate between two-year sea assignments and three-year land based assignments throughout their careers.

After my initial experience in Los Angeles, I started a 16-week Basic Officer Training Course at the Coast Guard academy in Connecticut, along with 15 other NOAA Corps candidates. After graduation, my first assignment was aboard NOAA’s hydrographic survey vessel, Rainier. I spent two years on Rainier surveying coastal Alaska, updating nautical charts originally created by our NOAA Corps ancestors over one hundred years ago.

Technology has advanced our ability to map the sea floor since those early efforts. Still, it’s absolutely jaw-dropping how accurate the old charts are, given the limited technology of the time.

After two years at sea, I am now serving in the Office of Response and Restoration’s Emergency Response Division, continuing a proud NOAA Corps history of serving our nation through science.

 

Ensign Matt Bissell came to NOAA from the Ocean Institute in Southern California where he was a science educator and floating lab technician. Bissell has a Master of Science degree in Geographic Information Science and Technology and a Bachelor of Science degree in Earth System Science. Bissell now resides in Seattle with his wife and one-year-old daughter. Special thanks to Albert “Skip” Theberge, at the NOAA Central Library for help with this article.


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Life at Sea or Scientist on Land: NOAA Corps Offers Both

Large white NOAA ship with mountains in background.

NOAA Ship Rainier is a hydrographic survey vessel that maps the ocean to aid maritime commerce, improve coastal resilience, and understand the marine environment. Credit: NOAA

By Cmdr. Jesse Stark, NOAA Corps

A life at sea, or a career conserving natural resources?

That was the choice I was contemplating while walking along the docks in Port Angeles, Washington, back in 1998. A chance encounter that day with the chief quartermaster of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Ship Rainer showed me I could do both.

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest I spent my time exploring the woods, beaches, and tide pools. Every summer I reread Jack London’s “The Sea Wolf”, and Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” My first job was a as a deck hand on charter fishing boats out of Port Angeles.

So, when Quartermaster Bernie Greene invited me aboard that day and told me stories with a sense of adventure, I signed onto the Rainer as an able-bodied seaman, and we headed to Alaska. That first voyage had me hooked and I joined NOAA Corps, leading to my current assignment as the Northwest scientific support coordinator.

NOAA has a long history of supplying scientific support to oil spills, starting with the Argo Merchant incident in 1976, and NOAA Corps history stretches back even farther to President Thomas Jefferson’s order for the first survey of the nation’s coast.

Today, the corps’ commissioned officers command NOAA’s fleet of research and survey vessels and aircraft, and also rotate to serve within each of NOAA’s other divisions. That combination of duties offers a breadth of experience that I draw upon in my current post in NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration‘s Emergency Response Division.

Man in uniform holding little girl inside ship.

Commander Jesse Stark holding daughter Izzie on NOAA Ship Pisces after a ceremony in Pascagoula, Mississippi at a ceremony donating an anchor to the city for its “Anchor Village,” a retail park constructed near the ship’s homeport after Hurricane Katrina. Credit: NOAA

In the event of an oil spill or chemical release, the U.S. Coast Guard has the primary responsibility for managing clean-up activities; the scientific support coordinator’s role is to provide scientific expertise and to communicate with other affected agencies or organizations to reach a common consensus on response actions.

During my 18-year career as a corps officer, I’ve had eight permanent assignments, four on ships and four on land in three different NOAA divisions. Those different assignments allowed me to develop skills in bringing resources and differing perspectives together to work toward a common goal. Often, operating units get stagnant and stove-piped, and having new blood with new perspective and outlook rotating through alleviates some of that.

It’s also enabled me to build relationships across different divisions and tie together processes and practices among the different operating units, and sometimes, competing ideologies.

As an example, my first land assignment was with NOAA Fisheries’ Protected Resources Division in Portland, Oregon. While there, I produced a GIS-based distribution map of each recorded ocean catch of salmon and steelhead by watershed origin. While this project involved mainly technical aptitude and data mining, I was also involved with writing biological opinions on research authorizations of endangered salmon species.

This required coordination of many competing and differing viewpoints on management of these species. Consensus had to be reached and often an impasse had to be broken among people with deep passions on these issues.

One of my most challenging assignments was in 2010 when I was executive officer of NOAA Ship Pisces that responded to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

During the Deepwater Horizon response, the normal collecting of living marine resource data was replaced with a new process of collecting water and sediment samples better suited to the situation. The incident also showed how industry and government can, and must, work side by side for the good of the public and natural resources.

All of these skills together are proving to come in handy as a science coordinator, where in any given situation there can be as many as five different federal agencies, three state agencies, and several private companies with differing opinions. I’m happy to put my skills and experiences to good use in teamwork building and consensus for the greater good.

 

Commander Stark joined NOAA’s Emergency Response Division in August 2016. Stark’s last assignment was commanding officer of the NOAA ship Oscar Dyson in Alaska. Stark started in NOAA as a seaman on the NOAA Ship Rainier in 1998 and was commissioned into the NOAA Corps in 1999.