ArcGIS Living Atlas

Cool examples from the U.S. Vessel Traffic application from Living Atlas

If you are new to the U.S. Vessel Traffic application from Living Atlas, then by all means, go check it!

Feel free to get the how/why lowdown from this introduction blog. Or just enjoy the slideshow below. Either way, welcome to some accidental lessons in Economic Geography…

One of the primary tasks map readers are visually scanning for when we look at maps (or any data visualization, really) is a departure from randomness. This reveals structure at work and lets us start honing in on better and better questions. Clearly the overriding patterns of the vessels in and around U.S. waters is inherently structured. It’s a wide-open highway system with varying amounts of network rigidity.

But look at this blip of outstanding structure. Track lines like this can be the result of a survey vessel improving seafloor mapping or a research vessel conducting a biomass inventory to better manage fishing regulations.

Vessel traffic in a strong grid pattern.
Grid patterns can reveal mapping, sample surveys, or biomass inventories.

It’s easy to think of the open seas as requiring little to no traffic management. But massive cargo vessels change speed and direction very slowly and coastal areas can look much like a regimented highway system directing incoming and outgoing traffic flow with separation schemes and warning areas with speed controls and avoidance areas. When cargo traffic is seen in the context of maritime reference boundaries we see lots of boats following lots of rules.

cargo traffic following strict separation schemes
Cargo traffic coming into, and leaving, large port facilities follow tight guidelines to avoid collisions and protect wildlife.

Speaking of rules, wherever there is a border there is opportunity. Here is an interesting pattern of passenger traffic taxing out to, then drifting at,  a seemingly arbitrary location. But when we activate the boundary for U.S. territorial waters, this pattern makes sense.

gambling vessels ferry passengers to international waters
Vessels ferry passengers to the other side of territorial waters, where gambling prohibitions do not apply.

So many of the vessel patterns that reveal themselves the manifestations of very human phenomena. Sometimes this is an entertaining revelation, like in the example above, but often it shows the sobering impact of something as seemingly unrelated as epidemiology. When locations in the United States were first responding to the spread of coronavirus in March of 2020, many cruise ships were caught in a limbo, unable to proceed into port with suspected cases aboard. These vessels, and their passengers, waited out the time churning in circles outside their port of call for days and weeks.

Cruise ships circle near port, awaiting instructions in the early days of coronavirus lockdowns.
Cruise ships circle near port, awaiting instructions in the early days of coronavirus lockdowns.

Similarly, areas without inland connectivity rely on vessel traffic to transport people and supplies about isolated communities. When travel restrictions were put in place, areas like the panhandle of Alaska, and in this specific case, the bustling waters around Juneau, were quieted.

Passenger vessel traffic around Juneau
Bustling passenger vessel traffic connecting Juneau and other communities in the panhandle of Alaska virtually cease amid preventative travel restrictions.

Speaking of safely waiting, ports are busy places and there are a limited number of berths. Gigantic tanker vessels queue up and wait their turn to offload their supply; they idle in designated anchorage areas. The poc marks you might notice positioned adjacent to these hives of activity are the echo of tankers swinging at their anchor tethers with the incoming and outgoing tide like balloons in the wind. Patterns like this can help us ask questions about who and what might be affected by these scores of massive diesel engines idling just off the coast. Seeing these anchorages floating near dense urban areas or vulnerable marine habitats in the basemap imagery can provide context for pragmatic questions of environmental stewardship, or inform considerations of air quality and public health.

Large ports show grids of circular tanker patterns offshore, where they are anchored awaiting a port berth.
Large ports show grids of circular tanker patterns offshore, where they are anchored awaiting a port berth.

Idling nearby is a sensation anyone who has been on a glacier boat tour can appreciate. In this example of glacier tours departing from nearby Valdez, Alaska, the vessel path data effectively traces the edge of the calving Portage Glacier, outpacing the underlying imagery. By clicking through the years, these paths can be seen moving deeper and deeper into what was formerly an icefield.

Vessels touring the edge of Portage Glacier in Alaska reveal a changing glacier edge, faster than the underlying basemap imagery can.
Vessels touring the edge of Portage Glacier in Alaska reveal a changing glacier edge, faster than the underlying basemap imagery can.

Speaking of ice, the Straits of Mackinac are no stranger to lots of shipping traffic, connecting Chicago to the eastern United States—but sometimes all the straits ship is ice. Compare these images of tow/tug traffic between Summer and Winter. Tow vessels strive through the winter to maintain a navigable channel, and cargo flows through surprisingly deeply into January, but most years see a freeze-up in February that even ice breakers can’t keep up with. Ultimately, nature decides who comes and goes, and when.

Seasonal ice controls the flow of traffic through the Straits of Mackinac
Seasonal ice controls the flow of traffic through the Straits of Mackinac.

Tow/tug boats are the workhorses of the waterways. They break ice, ferry barges, artfully shepherd massive tankers through cramped ports, and in general go where other vessels just can’t. Do you recognize any of these areas?

Tow and tug boats are populous and busy in all manner of locations.
Tow and tug boats are populous and busy in all manner of locations.

Frequently tow vessels take over for other larger ships when waterways prohibit the behemoths of cargo and crude. As large as the Mississippi river is, at some point its depth and crossings make it impossible for the large vessels to proceed. Notice where tanker and cargo ships meet their clearance limits; tow vessels take their shipments and ferry them deeply inland.

Tow vessels can traverse shallow and narrow waterways, extending the reach of shipping beyond where large tankers and cargo vessels can access.
Tow vessels can traverse shallow and narrow waterways, extending the reach of shipping beyond where large tankers and cargo vessels can access.

This sort of inter-vessel coordination allows a remarkable connection of goods…and people. In particularly precarious waterways, specialized local pilots are ferried out to large awaiting vessels who benefit from their focused knowledge, assuring safe navigation. The handoff can be a precise dance that includes jumping to ladders of still-moving vessels.

A specialized local pilot is delivered to a large vessel.
Photo by Kees Torn, Wikimedia commons
Passenger vessels often ferry specialized local pilots to large vessels to temporarily navigate high-risk waterways.
Passenger vessels often ferry specialized local pilots to large vessels to temporarily navigate high-risk waterways.

Often the patterns that emerge are echoes of much deeper natural cycles and undersea structures. Have you ever watched a flock of birds artfully swoop and dive almost like it is a single entity? Each bird is an independent creature, moving of its own volition under its own power, but when seen in sufficient numbers these individual agents reveal an underlying cooperation and a singular intelligence. Look at the seasonal swarming of fishing vessels along the undersea precipice of the Cascadia Basin. These fleets are fishing at the seasonal migration patterns of salmon, roaring into action in the spring and the fall. Additionally, if nothing of the bathymetry in this area was known, you might be able to trace out a fairly precise path of the oceanic shelf.

Seasonal salmon fishing traces the edge of the Cascadia Basin.
Seasonal salmon fishing traces the edge of the Cascadia Basin.

Similarly, note the exquisite precision with which hundreds of fishing vessels trace the bathymetric rise along the Eastern Seaboard, a glowing reflection of undersea structures and a warm Gulf Stream giving rise to a localized food chain.

Fishing fleets of the Eastern Seaboard trace the ridge of an undersea plateau, in search of fish.
Fishing fleets of the Eastern Seaboard trace the ridge of an undersea plateau, in search of fish.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this tour of interesting examples of the patterns that big data reveal. Enjoy the U.S. Vessel Traffic app and discover the patterns that give rise to your own questions. Enjoy!

About the authors

I have far too much fun looking for ways to understand and present data visually, hopefully driving product strategy and engaging users. I work in the ArcGIS Living Atlas team at Esri, pushing and pulling data in all sorts of absurd ways and then sharing the process. I also design user experiences for maps and apps. When I'm not doing those things, I'm chasing around toddlers and wrangling chickens, and generally getting into other ad-hoc adventures. Life is good. You might also like these Styles for ArcGIS Pro: esriurl.com/nelsonstyles

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Keith is a Product Engineer at Esri. He serves as the Ocean Curator for the Living Atlas of the World team. Keith works to create foundational layers that can help marine researchers, scientists, and others gain a better understanding of our oceans.

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