Why Seafloor Mapping Matters

Humanity knows less about the deep sea floor than it does the moon or Mars “despite the fact that we have yet to extract a gram of food, a breath of oxygen or a drop of water from those bodies,” said Canadian oceanographer Paul Snelgrove. Even after centuries of mapping the ocean floor, less than 20% is currently understood.

Yet with such limited knowledge, scientists have already made major discoveries. The ocean is home to a mountain, Challenger Deep, that is taller than Mount Everest by 7,000 feet and has canyons rivaling the Grand Canyon. This topography is home to some of the world’s most bizarre creatures due to the ecosystem’s extremes–near-freezing temperatures, crushing pressures, and lack of light–which have caused distinct evolutionary adaptations. For example, the vampire squid is able to live and breathe in water with oxygen as low as 3%, a feat few other animals possess.

As Robert D. Ballard, who discovered the Titanic wreckage in 1985, said, the seafloor must be mapped for its “unexpected discoveries.” The ocean floor is Earth’s last frontier and mapping it will have a major impact on global environmental health as well as the economy in the years to come.

The Economic Case
Three billion people rely on fish as a source of protein. “The Blue Economy” provides the equivalent of 31 million full-time jobs and is valued at $1.5 trillion annually. The ocean floor may be the next frontier for oil, gas, and minerals. Rare earth metals found in deep sea alloys are used in ubiquitous devices from cell phones to rechargeable batteries to fluorescent lighting. Miles of underwater cable connects billions to the worldwide web. Understanding underwater geo-hazards can help navies prevent accidents like the USS San Francisco that collided with an unknown underwater mountain in 2005. Moreover, understanding wave energy and tsunami propagation can help keep coastal populations safe and even convert wave energy into electrical energy.

The Environmental Case
Understanding the shape of the ocean’s beds can help scientists understand ocean circulation patterns that affect water temperature and salinity and determine weather and climate conditions. That’s important because extreme weather and rising water temperatures put natural and human ecosystems at risk. As the lifeblood of the Blue Planet, the oceans produce more than half of the atmosphere’s oxygen, absorb most carbon from it, and help distribute the sun’s heat throughout the world. Understanding the sea terrain is integral to conservation.

A project launched at the United Nations Ocean Conference in 2017, Seabed 2030, aims to map the entire ocean floor by 2030, beginning with the ocean deeper than 200 meters, and make the data available to all. The project draws on the experience of some 40 international organizations, networks spread across more than 50 countries, and private companies.

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