Plans to build in the North Sea, from floating islands to wind farms and CO2 storage, abound. But is there enough room? And will such plans clash with the activities already taking place? PhD candidate Solange van der Werff and her TU Delft colleagues developed a detailed chart providing a comprehensive picture of how busy the North Sea actually is.

Plans to build in the North Sea have been proliferating, from another airport to homes on floating islands. It is, of course, key in providing the locations for wind farms, solar power generation and CO2 storage necessary for the energy transition process. And then there is shipping and fishing.

The new visualisation technique has enabled Van der Werff and her team to create a clear image of the level of activity at sea and on rivers and canals. The overall picture shows which parts of the North Sea are already spoken for. Zoom in, and the activities that take place there will appear. The chart’s high resolution makes it possible to distinguish patterns as well as recognise specific nautical activities.

‘The main shipping lanes used to be roughly marked using heat maps. Our chart is so detailed you can even recognise individual wind turbines. We can trace them via the activity of the ships that are doing the work there,’ Van der Werff explains.

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Millions of vessel positions

Van der Werff used a dataset of some four billion vessel positions to create the chart, collected over a four-month period. The data are part of the Automatic Identification System (AIS). Dutch national transport authority Rijkswaterstaat collects this data for the Dutch territory and has made a part of it available to Van der Werff. The system enables skippers, as well as traffic and port services, to read out the position, course and speed of ships in the area, ensuring and improving the safety and smooth running of waterborne traffic.

This map shows shipping movements as well as wind farms and the shipping movements around them (screenshot of the map).

The huge amount of data acquired through AIS could already be used to create a chart, but computing capacity limited the resolution. One pixel represented an area of several hundred metres. Van der Werff and her colleagues from TU Delft and Deltares are now relying on the Planetary Computer, the new computing facility provided by Microsoft to promote global sustainability. This super computer is able to visualise the AIS dataset with one pixel equalling a couple of metres.

Insight in traffic safety and emission levels

The chart is already a valuable tool to visualise an existing situation. The next step is to simulate changes based on the knowledge that has been gathered. This will help to analyse the routes and speeds of ships, and can also generate new insights into traffic safety and CO2 emissions.

‘This approach will answer the question of whether there is actually room enough on the North Sea to combine the plans that are being made,’ Van der Werff says. ‘So far our partners in the project have welcomed our findings with great enthusiasm.’

View the interactive map of the North Sea

Scroll through the chart here and discover for yourself the designated wind farm locations, the main shipping routes, activity around ports and sluices; dredging work locations and ships’ CO2 emission levels.

The North Sea visualisation is Solange van der Werff’s PhD project, carried out under the auspices of Prof. Mark van Koningsveld of the faculty of Ports & Waterways. Her partners in the project are Rijkswaterstaat, Deltares and MARIN. This is the first instance of Dutch scientists using Microsoft’s Planetary Computer. SmartPort and Port of Rotterdam sponsor this project.

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Picture: Screenshot of the interactive chart developed by Solange van der Werff