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Mapping The Ocean Floor To Earth’s Last Unexplored Frontier

The ocean floor is one of the least understood places on Earth. Up to 80% remains unchartered (the area outside shipping lanes, mostly). For hundreds of miles, we have a dim idea of what’s on Big Bottom.

These maps, which were created using satellites, may not look particularly detailed. But, actually, they’re up to four times more accurate than previous renderings of the marine floor, according to researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of Sydney, NOAA, and the European Space Agency. They were made using two satellites–Jason-1 and Cryosat-2– which tracked relative sea surface height from space. The subtle peaks and troughs of the water then were rendered into landforms on the marine floor.

Now we can see a host of underwater features, including thousands of small volcanos (mostly extinct), ridges, valleys, and hill formations that weren’t mapped before.

Published in the latest issue of the journal Science, the maps are described as “a breakthrough in space-based marine gravity observation” in a commentary by Cheinway Hwang, a professor at National Chiao Tung University in Hsinchu, Taiwan.

In an interview with LiveScience, David Sandwell, a marine geophysicist at Scripps, highlighted the detail around South America and Africa. “We can see these transform faults or fracture zones all the way up to the continental margins that are currently buried by sediments, and you couldn’t before,” he said. The maps also reveal continental shifts in new ways, say scientists.

It’s strange. There are still vast parts of Earth that are still relatively unmapped.

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