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English and Metric Units and the Press

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The crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 off Southern California brought a flurry of inquiries to WR CMG, among them a request from a newspaper reporter for a seafloor map of the crash site. The USGS has never mapped in the specific area of the crash site, but our data-management group has a lot of expertise in custom making maps from existing databases.

Carolyn Degnan and Michael Hamer used USGS DEM (digital-elevation model) data to construct a shaded-relief view of the land and NOAA hydrographic data to construct a bathymetric map of the sea floor. Within a few hours, the reporter had a digital file for the newspaper's graphic artists to modify as needed.

Unfortunately, the newspaper staff overlooked the word "meters" in the map legend and added "feet" to contour labels without changing the numbers. Observant readers would notice that, although the crash debris was reported to be resting at a depth of about 700 ft, the published map made it appear to be at a depth of about 200 ft.

Another newspaper made a similar error, taking numbers off a published USGS topographic map and assuming that the offshore contours were, like the onshore contours, in feet. In fact, a key on the map showed that the offshore contours were in fathoms.

As one reporter commented when this error was brought to his attention, "It never occurred to me that they would use one unit [feet] on land and another [fathoms] at sea on the same map. It makes it easier to understand what happened with the Mars probe." The moral of the story: ask reporters what units they want, and tell them in a cover letter what units they are getting (don't rely on the map labels).

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in this issue: Fieldwork cover story:
Moloka'i Coral Reef Study Pt. 1

Moloka'i Coral Reef Study Pt. 2

Massachusetts Bay Cruise

Research Two New Web Sites

Outreach Sandwich High School

English & Metric Units

Meetings Tsunami Workshop

NOAA/USGS Benthic Habitat Initiative

Sustainable Seas

USGS/Geological Survey of Canada


Science Education Partnership

GD Safety

Awards Thomas Jefferson Medal

CMG "Youngster" Wins Science Award

Winning Photo

Senate Commendation

Staff & Center News Presentations

BRD in St. Pete

Woods Hole Community Activities

Dillon & Winters on BBC Radio

Publications March Publications List

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