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What are tides and currents?

Tides. If you live near the coast or have ever visited the beach, you are probably aware of
tides. But did you know that tides are really big waves that move through the ocean in
response to the forces exerted by the Moon and the Sun? Tides start in the ocean and move
towards the coast, where they appear as the regular rise and fall of the sea surface. How much
the water level changes over the day varies depending on where you are and what day it is.
Currents. Currents put motion in the ocean! Tides involve water moving up and down;
currents involve the movement of water back and forth. Currents are driven by several factors.
Tides are one of these. Wind, the shape of the land, and even water temperature are other facts
that drive currents.
Why study tides and currents?

We need accurate tide and current data to aid in navigation, but these measurements also play
an important role in keeping people and the environment safe. A change in water level (due to
tides) can leave someone stranded (or flooded). And knowing how fast water is movingand
in what directionis important for anyone involved in water-related activities. Predicting and
measuring tides and currents is important for things like getting cargo ships safely into and
out of ports, determining the extent of an oil spill, building bridges and piers, determining the
best fishing spots, emergency preparedness, tsunami tracking, marsh restoration, and much
more.
How do we measure tides

NOS has been measuring and predicting tides since the early 1800s. We've come a long way
since the days of sticking a rod into the water to determine water level. Today, we use
engineered air acoustic and pressure systems to automatically detect and record changes in
water levels. All data are recorded electronically, transmitted via satellite every six minutes,
and made available online. At the backbone of this system is a network of long-term,
continuously operating water-level stations known as the National Water Level Observation
Network
How do we measure currents

The two main components of currents are speed and direction. To measure a current, toss an
object into the water and time how long it takes to get to a certain point a known distance
away. Granted, technology allows us to be a little more accurate and sophisticated in our
measurements. For example, the object in the water might be a buoy that is equipped with
Global Positioning System technology or satellite communications that relay data and
information.
Tidal datums

If the level of water is constantly changing, how do we know how much water levels have
risen or fallen from "normal?" To define "normal," scientists use a reference, or datum, as a
starting point from which all measurements are made. The numbers that appear on a nautical
chart represent water depths measured relative to such a datum. Mean lower low water, or the
average of all observed lower low waters (the lower of the two low waters of any tidal day), is
known as chart datum in most areas. Mean high water, or the average of all observed highwater levels, is the datum used to represent shoreline on charts. Tidal datums also provide
baseline determinations for the Exclusive Economic Zone, as well as boundaries between
private, state, and federal ownership and jurisdiction.
Navigating a busy port

What's going on in a busy port is much like what's going on at a busy airport. Just as aircraft
flying in and around an airport need current weather and ground conditions, ships coming into
port need to know exactly what's going on in the water and in the air in real time. Enter the
Physical Oceanographic Real-Time System, or PORTS. PORTS provides mariners with
real-time information such as water levels, current speed and direction, winds, air
temperature, and water temperature and salinity. This stream of data is freely available online
and ship captains can also access the data via the phone.