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A chart datum is the level of water that charted depths displayed on a nautical chart are measured from. A chart datum is generally a tidal datum; that is, a datum derived from some phase of the tide. Common chart datums are lowest astronomical tide and mean lower low water.
Lowest astronomical tide
Many national charting agencies, including the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office and the Australian Hydrographic Service, use the Lowest Astronomical Tide (LAT) - the height of the water at the lowest possible theoretical tide - to define chart datums. LAT is the lowest levels which can be predicted to occur under average meteorological conditions.
One advantage of using LAT is that all predicted tidal heights must then be positive (or zero) avoiding possible ambiguity and the need to explicitly state sign. Calculation of the LAT only allows for gravitational effects so lower tides may occur in practice due to other factors (e.g. meteorological effects such as high pressure systems).
Mean lower low water
The United States' National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses mean lower low water (MLLW), which is the average height of the lowest tide recorded at a tide station each day during the recording period. MLLW is only a mean, so some tidal levels may be negative relative to MLLW, see also Mean Low Water Spring.
Charts and tables
Charted depths and drying heights on nautical charts are given relative to chart datum. Some height values on charts, such as vertical clearances under bridges or overhead wires, may be referenced to a different vertical datum, such as Mean High Water Spring or Highest Astronomical Tide (HAT).
Tide tables give the height of the tide above a chart datum. This makes it possible to calculate the depth of water at a given point and a given time by adding the charted depth to the height of the tide. To calculate whether an area that dries is under water, subtract the drying height from the height of the tide.
Using charts and tables that are not based on the same datum can result in incorrect calculation of water depths and should be avoided. Check that they are compatible before use.
- Australian Bureau of Meteorology National Tide Centre Glossary http://www.bom.gov.au/oceanography/projects/ntc/NTC_glossary.pdf (retrieved 30 April 2013)
- CIRIA (1996). Beach management manual. CIRIA Report 153.
- Australian Tides Manual SP9 V4.1, Australian Intergovernmental Committee on Surveying and Mapping, Permanent Committee on Tides and Mean Sea Level http://www.icsm.gov.au/tides/SP9_Australian_Tides_Manual_V4.1.pdf