NOAA Begins Four-Year Transition to Phase Out Printing Paper Charts

ending production of paper navigation charts
Seafarers gathered around the chart table reviewing the plan with the captain and navigation officer (ffile photo)

Published Mar 1, 2021 7:53 PM by The Maritime Executive

Two years after announcing its intent to begin the phaseout of paper nautical charts, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has officially begun the effort to sunset one of the most basic of tools for all mariners ranging from captains of giant ocean-going vessels to the recreational boaters. NOAA is transitioning exclusively to electronic navigation charts.

Dating back to the 13th century and the invention of the magnetic compass, chart making evolved into an art. The original maps were drawn on a flat plane not taking into account the curvature of the earth, but by the 17th century, the modern concept of Mercator projection charts was developed to adjust for the shape of the earth. The failure to keep charts updated and obstacles that led to groundings or collisions, however, was frequently cited by mariners as the causes of accidents. 

Citing the benefits of quicker and easier updates to increase marine safety, NOAA announced in late 2019 the start of a five-year process to end traditional paper nautical chart production. The process for selecting the individual charts to be phased out will initially be based on the volume of sales or downloads, and in regions with improved NOAA electronic navigational chart coverage. Notification will be included with each chart as the final version is released and the cancellation of all traditional paper and associated raster chart products is expected to be completed by January 2025.

A section of the last paper chart for Lake Tahoe (NOAA)

The chart selected to kick off the transition is for Lake Tahoe, which straddles the California and Nevada border and is popular with recreational boaters. Officially, it is chart 18665 and the latest iteration includes a note in the lower left corner of the chart which says that it is the last paper edition and it will be canceled six months later on August 26.

While NOAA is sunsetting its traditional nautical chart products, it is undertaking a major effort to improve the data consistency and provide larger scale coverage within its electronic navigational chart product suite. 

Over the next four years, NOAA will work to ease the transition to electronic products by providing access to paper chart products based on electronic data. The online NOAA Custom Chart tool also enables users to create their own paper and PDF charts from the latest NOAA ENC data.