Less Than 15% of the World’s Seafloor Has Been Mapped. Can We Finish the Job?

atlantic-trenchWould it surprise you to know that more than 85% of the world’s seafloor has not been mapped with modern tools? That’s a pretty sorry statistic. And one that a group of scientists and mariners is trying to change.

In-depth knowledge of the world’s seafloor is important for a number of reasons. Mariners, for example, rely on modern mapping to plan and navigate safe pathways. More extensive seafloor mapping can help scientists, too. Take tsunamis, for example. Because the ocean floor guides their paths, more extensive mapping could help scientists better understand and monitor these often-destructive seismic waves. And because glaciers leave informative marks on the seafloor, more complete mapping could also give scientists better insights into our climate history. 

An Ambitious Plan

Earlier this year, the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO)—an organization of mariners and scientists affiliated with the United Nations—met in Monaco to work out a plan for mapping most of the world’s seafloor by 2030.

Let’s take a look at some of the key challenges, along with some promising steps. 


OCEAN SIZE: With 70% percent of the Earth covered in oceans, mapping most of the seafloor is a Herculean challenge to be sure. But with the right commitment from the right organizations, GEBCO’s goal is not out of reach.

Contractors that specialize in seafloor mapping do a lot of charting for governments and corporations. Although these contractors can’t share the mapping they’re hired to do, one such company, Fugro, has started mapping the seafloor along the expanses to and from its jobs—and plans to share its data with researchers. In the past year and half alone, Fugro has covered a lot of ground—mapping nearly 390,000 square miles of seafloor.

Think about it. That’s about 1/300th of the total deep seafloor area. Mapped by one company. In less than two years. Will more organizations step up to help out with this world effort?


COMPETITION: A lot of seafloor mapping is bought and paid for by governments and militaries, as well as by corporations involved in such things as offshore oil drilling and undersea cables. But because the mapping information they own provides them with a competitive edge, these organizations typically don’t make their charts public.

But alas, there’s hope in this area, too. As a result of its June meeting, GEBCO has succeeded at improving access to government and corporate information. For example, Quintillion, a cable company that pays for seafloor mapping, has agreed to release its data to NOAA. Negotiations with other entities are moving forward as well.


FUNDING: One estimate for mapping the seafloor puts the cost at about 3 billion dollars. So far, the money isn’t there.

But again, all hope is not lost.

Some organizations are stepping up to fund mapping projects. One such organization is The Nippon Foundation, a Japanese non-profit focused on social innovation, which also helped support the GEBCO meeting.

Various groups of oceanographers, explorers and researchers are helping out the effort as well—from mapping out areas of the seafloor and sharing the data with NOAA to conducting biological fieldwork and broadcasting helpful seafloor findings online.

Crowdsourcing projects, aimed at helping GEBCO reach its goal, are also taking hold. For example, Lieutenant Anthony Klemm, an officer aboard an NOAA research vessel, started a pilot project that lets mariners use a one-click software solution to share their own mapping data with the government, researchers and the public.


MAPPING TOOLS: In addition to the lack of funding, there’s also a dearth of properly equipped ships. Indeed, the key to accomplishing GEBCO’s 2030 mapping goal may rely on the development of new tools and technologies.

To that end, an organization called the XPrize Foundation is holding a competition, in two rounds over three years. The contest requires participating teams to create a mostly autonomous device that can map the seafloor and identify certain objects. The winning team will receive a $4 million prize, and three additional teams will be awarded $1 million each. Pretty good incentives for innovation!





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