Mapping the seabed is an ancient practice engaged in by the ancient Greeks and Egyptians as they plied the waters of the Mediterranean — but an ambitious plan called Seabed 2030 means to take this to an entirely new level.
The floors of the world’s oceans and seas have until fairly recently been nearly as unknown as the dark side of the moon.
Now, scientists are partnering with private vessel owners to map them completely by the year 2030.
Two non-profit organizations are collaborating with research institutions and private vessel owners to do just that, as part of the incredibly ambitious project called “Seabed 2030.”
Made possible by the Nippon Foundation, the International Hydrographic Organization and other entities, the information gathered will greatly aid in the sustainable use of ocean and sea resources, guiding policy decisions the world over.
Seabed 2030 information to be compiled into “GEBCO Ocean Map”
The Nippon Foundation – GEBCO Seabed 2030 Project is a collaborative effort aiming to complete the mapping of the world’s ocean and sea floors, compiling all the bathymetric data they collect into the freely-available “GEBCO Ocean Map.”
The project, which was announced at the United Nations Oceans Conference in June 2017, aligns with its Sustainable Development Goal #14. The years from 2021 to 2030 have been declared by the UN as “The UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development.”
For nearly a decade, scientists at Monterey Bay’s Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) in California have studied the topography and ecology of Sur Ridge, an undersea area as large as of Manhattan, located 37 miles off the coast.
While the area had been known to scientists for decades, its enormous potential for aquatic life wasn’t realized until recently. “The first time somebody actually put a (remotely operated vehicle) down there and looked at what was there was 2013,” according to David Caress, a principal engineer at MBARI, in a report from Smithsonian Magazine.
“What they were doing was essentially exploration and sampling, but they discovered a spectacular ecological community,” he added. Researchers soon found forests of “bubblegum” corals, along with swaths of yellow coral, white sponges and even a vampire squid.
Caress says that at that point, “It was clear that mapping would be useful to provide context to the ecology, and that’s where I come in.” Determining the topography of the ocean and sea floors would therefore help scientists understand currents that carry plankton and other nutrients to deep-water corals and sponges, which serve as the basis for ecosystems the world over, including the Mediterranean.
While the modern tools used in seafloor mapping are technological marvels, measuring the depths of our seas is not a new pursuit. Over 3,000 years ago, weighted lines and sounding poles lowered into the water were used to measure the depth of the Mediterranean.
In the 1870s, The “Challenger Deep,” the deepest known area of all the world’s oceans– so far — was discovered by the HMS Challenger, a repurposed Royal Navy warship after similarly casting a weighted rope overboard.
Echo sounding in 1950’s allowed for first modern seabed mapping
Academics in the 1950’s created the first modern seabed charts, creating a physiographic map of the floor of the Atlantic Ocean using single-beam echo soundings. That enabled them to discover a gigantic, worldwide volcanic ridge system on the ocean floor, where lava emerged to form large plates that moved with time — allowing them to finally confirm the theory that Earth’s continents do indeed drift over the ages.
Modern bathymetry, or the study of the depths of the oceans and seas, now boasts a range of tools in its quest to map the seafloor, from aircraft using laser imaging technology (LIDAR) that easily map coastline areas to submersible Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROV’s) such as those used by MBARI.
Between 2015 and 2020, MBARI researchers used ship-based multibeam SONAR to survey the area at a resolution of 25 meters. They then used a Mapping Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (MAUV) to again scan the topography at a much-smaller one-meter resolution.
Lastly, they employed an ROV which flew three meters from the surface of Sur Ridge and used a vast array of equipment — including lasers, sonar, strobe lights and stereo cameras — to create tiny five-centimeter and one-centimeter-resolution charts with incredibly intricate photography on the scale of millimeters.
The data was then collated to create a video depicting Sur Ridge in high definition. This underwater arena, of which little was known eight years ago, was now available for observation by a range of different researchers, enabling them to study it for ecological and other purposes.
Only six percent of world’s ocean and sea floors fully mapped by 2017
MBARI’s reconstruction of the Sur Ridge area, the most detailed visualization of a large underwater feature in the deep sea, serves as a model for the entire Seabed 2030 project.
Incredibly, even as of 2021, only 20 percent of the world’s seafloor has been mapped to what researchers believe is an adequate resolution.
To help rectify this situation, two nonprofit organizations came together in 2018 to found the Nippon Foundation-GEBCO Seabed 2030 Project, which is an international effort with the ambitious aim to map 100 percent of the globe’s ocean and seafloors by 2030.
Jamie McMichael-Phillips, the project’s director, tells Smithsonian that “In 2017, only six percent of the world’s oceans floor had been adequately mapped. Seabed 2030 was designed to accelerate this mapping, using data from academia, government, the maritime industry — and citizens themselves.”
The Nippon Foundation, a Japanese philanthropic organization that focuses on the future of the oceans, partnered with GEBCO, a group focused on understanding the bathymetry, or depth measurement, of the oceans, in this effort to finally create a comprehensive, publicly accessible map of all the world’s seafloors.
To be called the GEBCO Grid, the new chart will be built on the work of research organizations, government entities — and even ordinary citizens. These groups are even now collecting a wealth of seabed data for scientific, navigational, or nautical purposes. The GEBCO Grid, with an enormous amount of such collated information, will provide a map which combines all of this data.
At a time when increasingly forceful storms are occurring all over the world and temperatures are rising not only in the air over the continents but in the seas as well, scientists will soon be able to use information on the shape of the seafloor to understand many of these climate change processes, including any sea-level increases which might occur.
Bathymetric charts of course also help researchers predict the behavior and strength of tsunamis and give insight to ecologists so that they can better understand underwater ecosystems the world over.
Ashley Chappell, an integrated ocean and coastal mapping coordinator at the US’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), explains “Data is used in coastal ocean science, habitat characterization, wave models, flooding models, wind energy development, all kinds of things.”
Naturally, such mapping is enormously, often prohibitively, expensive, for many different groups working by themselves. “An oceanographic research ship with work class deep diving ROV can easily cost $35,000 per day and rise to more than double that depending on ship size,” states Caress, the principal engineer at MBARI. “And there’s ship and crew costs on top of that.”
140 million square miles of seafloor must be charted
Approximately 140 million square miles of water on the globe needs to be covered in this effort — but in an age of crowdsourcing, anything is possible, if you consider what is happening right now, with ordinary mariners helping out the effort in any way they can.
The Seabed 2030 project has brought together not only research institutions which usually work independently but also ordinary citizens who download the information they are gathering as they ply the waters of their favorite haunts in all the seas of the world.
Chappell says “While we were collaborating before, the project has certainly driven more collaboration. And from my perspective, it really reinvigorated this desire we all share: to get our oceans mapped.”
Hundreds of thousands of fishing boats, yachts and cargo vessels are now equipped with on-board echosounders — and such ships often take routes that research organizations, operating in large swaths of open oceans, do not.
Utilizing the information gleaned from these commercial and private vessels will be crucial to the project’s success in creating one enormous database of the contours of the seafloor all around the world.
McMichael-Phillips says he is hopeful that even more citizen scientists will join the effort as awareness of the incredibly ambitious project grows all across the world. Seabed 2030 is now doing trials in Palau, South Africa and Greenland, where vessels are now using inexpensive data loggers in the hope that they will provide useful information.
Crowdsourced data vital to effort
McMichael-Phillips looks forward to the end of this year, when he believes that the GEBCO Grid will be able to display a total of 21 percent of the seafloor of the entire globe to an adequate resolution.
However, he says that collaboration is necessary if the researchers are to create a chart showing 100 percent of the seafloors by 2030. He states that if the project owned its own a fleet of 200 ships patrolling and mapping the oceans all day every day, it could achieve that goal within one year.
“There are more than 200 vessels capable of deploying sonar systems,” he explains, “but the cost of such a feat would be somewhere between $3 billion and $5 billion, which isn’t easy to find in the maritime domain.”
In these times, such an ambitious project can only come from data that originates from crowdsourcing.
Researchers say that the future of charting the seafloors is looking bright, considering the weather of new technologies along with the collaboration of ordinary citizens and commercial vessels.
The Schmidt Ocean Institute, a private research organization with its own a research vessel and ROV, has agreed to share all of its charting information with Seabed 2030 in order to make the deadline to create the new map. At present, the organization is working with Australian entities to map the Tasman and Coral seas off the east coast of that continent.
Of course, the wide range of unmanned vessels are enabling the rapid amassing of information more efficiently than any crewed vessel ever could, since they can be completely dedicated to that one mission.
Last year, a SEA-KIT vessel was able to map over 350 square miles of ocean floor in the Atlantic while being remotely controlled by a team of operators based in Essex, England. Since are these quests cheaper than operating crewed vessels, they will need to be adopted more widely if the goal of Seabed 2030 can be reached.
McMichael-Phillips, the director of Seabed 2030, is hopeful that this will become a reality.
“People can run uncrewed, low-carbon mapping systems from the safety of the shore. We’re only just seeing that technology accelerate through the maritime sector; it’s a big game changer.”