NOAA Corps Foundations: Evolution from the Coast and Geodetic Survey

NOAA is home to the nation's seventh, and smallest, uniformed service: the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps. NOAA Corps officers can be found operating NOAA ships and aircraft or serving in NOAA research laboratories and program offices. NOAA Corps officer duties and areas of operations can range from launching weather balloons at the South Pole, conducting hydrographic surveys in Alaska, or flying into hurricanes. The services provided by officers are critical to acquiring data for NOAA science and delivering information and products to the public.


The advent of the motor truck put many horses and wagons out of work.

The officers of the Coast and Geodetic Survey, the NOAA Corps predecessor service, were world renowned for their expertise and accuracy in leveling and triangulation. The advent of the motor truck put many horses and wagons out of work. Click image for larger view.

Imagine a job where you could have played key roles in assessing the environmental damage from the Exxon Valdez oil spill, helping unlock the mysteries of global climate change, and working to modernize weather forecasting and warnings of severe weather. This job might also have allowed you to provide support to the World Trade Center and Pentagon recovery and clean-up efforts by mapping the wreckage using remote sensing technology or assist in the search and location of the wreckage from airplane crashes, such as TWA flight 800. Such is the role of the approximately 300 men and women who make up the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps.

Today's NOAA Corps has evolved over the years, as its range of responsibilities has broadened from the original mandate signed in 1807 by President Thomas Jefferson to create the Survey of the Coast. This piece traces the foundation of the NOAA Corps, from its early origins to recent history.


Early Origins…

Although the "official" forerunner to the NOAA Corps was not created until 1917, NOAA Corps’ heritage is closely tied to America’s oldest scientific agency, the Survey of the Coast, which was established in 1807. This new agency, composed of civilian surveyors, was tasked with charting U.S. coastal waters to promote commerce along the newly formed United States.

During the period before the Civil War, the work force of the Survey was made up of a nucleus of civilians and several Army and Naval officers. These men and women charted the nation's waterways, produced topographic maps of our nation's shorelines, and conducted the triangulation that was the backbone of all precise mapping efforts. Their efforts made U.S. marine highways among the best charted in the world.

With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, all Army officers were permanently withdrawn from the Survey; all but two Naval officers were withdrawn from Survey duty. Civilian officers of the Survey were called upon to serve in the field and provide mapping, hydrographic, and engineering expertise for Union forces for the duration of the war.

Civilian coast surveyors, the professional ancestors of today's NOAA Corps, served in virtually all theaters of the war. They were often on the front lines conducting their mapping duties, and the Coast Survey officer force produced many of the coastal charts and interior maps used by Union forces.

The Civil War ended in 1865, and the Coast Survey resumed its work of making the nation's shores safe for commerce. During the period following the Civil War, the Survey’s area of responsibility continued to grow with the acquisition of Alaska in 1867 and the passage of an 1871 law requiring the Coast Survey to begin conducting geodetic surveys in the interior of the country. Naval officers returned to hydrographic duty on the Survey and remained with the Survey until the Spanish-American War in 1898, when all Naval officers were permanently withdrawn.

With the acquisition of the Philippines and Puerto Rico, the Coast and Geodetic Survey (C&GS) realm of responsibility increased again. Initial surveys in the Philippines were in support of defense needs, as Naval and Army ships were frequently grounding on uncharted shoals.


The Creation of a Commissioned Service

During the years before World War I (WWI), all C&GS work was conducted by civilians despite the fact that shipboard personnel wore uniforms that were virtually indistinguishable from Naval uniforms.

Hydrographic surveying in Southeast Alaska

Hydrographic surveying in Southeast Alaska employing the leadline and horizontal sextent angles to determine water depths. Photograph circa 1937.

The United States entered WWI in 1917, and the forerunner to the NOAA Corps, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Corps, was created. This newly commissioned service was formed in order to eliminate a condition that arose during the Civil War: un-uniformed civilian assistants accompanying Armed Forces members were in jeopardy of being considered spies if captured by the enemy. Also, by forming a uniformed commissioned service that could be rapidly transferred into the Armed Forces, the rapid assimilation of C&GS technical skills for defense purposes was assured. Even today, if a national emergency occurs, the NOAA Corps can be assimilated rapidly into the Armed Services by order of the President.

Over half the commissioned officers of the C&GS served with the Army, Navy, or Marine Corps during WWI.


World War II: Major Contributions

Following WWI, the C&GS reverted to its role of peaceful surveyor and chart maker of the nation. Those who joined the Survey during this period developed expertise in land surveying, sea floor and airways charting, coastline mapping, geophysics, and oceanography.

With the start of World War II (WWII), over half of the commissioned officers of the C&GS were transferred to the Army, Navy, or Marine Corps. Of the C&GS civilian work force, approximately one-half joined the Armed Services. Those remaining on the home front were engaged almost exclusively in activities related to the war. Three officers who remained in the C&GS, and eleven members of the agency who had joined other services, were killed during WWII.

During the war, C&GS officers served as artillery surveyors, hydrographers, amphibious engineers, beach masters, reconnaissance surveyors for the worldwide aeronautical charting effort, instructors at service schools, and in a range of technical positions. In addition to providing services on the home front, officers and civilians of the Survey served in North Africa, Europe, and throughout the Pacific during the war.

As the “C&GS’ers” were but a small percentage of the men and women who served in WWII, there is no claim that C&GS personnel or ships were instrumental in turning the tide of any one battle or enemy engagement. But the claim is justly made that the Survey helped speed the movement of men and material; that it was instrumental in improving the efficiency of putting ordnance on target; and that CG&S charts, field artillery surveys, and skill in developing new instrumentation and methods saved countless American and Allied lives. Much of this work was done on the front, and C&GS Corps officers were subjected to all the hazards of land, air, and naval warfare.


Post-WWII: A Changing Mandate

Rusty, the mascot for the NOAA ship Explorer in 194

Rusty, the mascot for the NOAA ship Explorer in 1949, may not have scored points in obedience, but he served honorably under the command of Captain H. Arnold Karo until he was "riffed." Click image for larger view.

Following WWII, C&GS officers returned home to be ordered to the business of surveying and charting our nation. Many officers who had spent years overseas were immediately sent out on survey ships and mobile field survey parties. Defense projects were still prominent in work conducted by officers. The C&GS sent survey crews to Arctic Alaska for 10 years to work on a string of continental defense radars, known as the Distant Early Warning Line, which ultimately stretched from Alaska to Greenland. Officers also conducted geodetic and geophysical surveys of various rocket ranges and sailed on oceanographic cruises for the Navy, and C&GS expertise was used in establishing seismic stations for monitoring nuclear testing.

In 1959, as it became increasingly evident that the United States’ environment was intertwined with the world environment, C&GS was given the mandate to conduct worldwide oceanographic studies. In the 152 years since its inception, the Survey of the Coast had grown from a relatively small operation centered on the east coast of the United States to an agency working in all the oceans of the world.


“Official” Establishment of Today’s NOAA Corps

Following a short stint (1965-1970) as the Environmental Science Services Administration (ESSA) and the ESSA Corps, in 1970, several science agencies with related missions were brought together to form one agency: NOAA. Thus, the NOAA Corps came into existence in 1970.

NOAA Corps at the South Pole

Today's NOAA Corps officers serve in a much broader range of scientific endeavors than their predecessors, including in outposts as far away as the South Pole. Here, daily atmospheric measurements are recorded. Click image for larger view.

NOAA Corps officers today serve within all components of NOAA as well as with the Department of Defense, the U. S. Coast Guard, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the U.S. Department of State. Through the Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, NOAA Corps officers operate NOAA’s fleet of research and survey vessels and aircraft.

Today’s NOAA civilians and officers are equally at home on or under the sea, surveying the land, charting the airways, flying into hurricanes and other dangerous weather phenomena, monitoring environmental spacecraft, and studying the most important star, our sun. They serve on all the oceans of the world and represent the United States in many nations. One can only wonder what Ferdinand Hassler would think about the organization that he helped found so many years ago.

Based on an original article by Skip Theberge, NOAA's National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service


Works Consulted

Theberge, A. (2006). NOAA Corps and the Coast and Geodetic Survey. Retrieved July 14, 2006, from: