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Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Explained: Why scientists want to map the entire ocean floor

The knowledge of bathymetry — the measurement of the shape and depth of the ocean floor — is instrumental in understanding several natural phenomena, including ocean circulation, tides, and biological hotspots.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: June 25, 2020 10:01:38 am
mapping ocean floor, ocean floor, ocean floor mapping The Nippon Foundation-GEBCO Seabed 2030 Project has mapped one-fifth of the world’s ocean floor. (Source: seabed2030.gebco.net)

Announcing a new milestone in the history of marine exploration, an international collaboration of researchers said on June 21 that it had finished mapping nearly one-fifth of the world’s ocean floor.

The Nippon Foundation-GEBCO Seabed 2030 Project, which is coordinating efforts to complete the mapping of the entire ocean floor by 2030, said on World Hydrography Day (June 21) that it had added 1.45 crore square kilometres of new bathymetric data to its latest grid.

Since the launch of the project in 2017, the surveying of the ocean bed as per modern standards has gone up from around 6 per cent to 19 per cent.

In a press release, Jamie McMichael-Phillips, Seabed 2030 Project Director, said: “This is a leap forward towards achieving our mission, by the year 2030, to empower the world to make policy decisions, use the ocean sustainability and undertake scientific research based on detailed bathymetric information of the Earth’s seabed.”

Why is the study of the ocean floor important?

The knowledge of bathymetry — the measurement of the shape and depth of the ocean floor — is instrumental in understanding several natural phenomena, including ocean circulation, tides, and biological hotspots. It also provides key inputs for navigation, forecasting tsunamis, exploration for oil and gas projects, building offshore wind turbines, fishing resources, and for laying cables and pipelines.

This data becomes highly valuable during disaster situations. According to an expert who spoke to Science Magazine, thanks to the previously mapped seafloor, scientists in Japan were able to reconstruct the forces behind the destructive 2011 Tohoku earthquake.

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As per a Seabed 2030 document, “The need for a bathymetric base map of the southeastern Indian Ocean also became particularly evident in the search for the Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which disappeared 8 March 2014.”

Importantly, the maps would also ensure a better understanding of climate change, since floor features including canyons and underwater volcanoes influence phenomena such as the vertical mixing of ocean water, and ocean currents — which act as conveyor belts of warm and cold water, thus influencing the weather and climate. Climate change has impacted the flow of these currents, and more knowledge about them would help scientists create models forecasting the future behaviour of the climate, including sea-level rise.

A map of the entire global ocean floor would also help further achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal to conserve and sustainably use oceans, seas and marine resources.

The Seabed 2030 Project

The global initiative is a collaboration between Japan’s non-profit Nippon Foundation and the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO). As per its website, GEBCO is the only intergovernmental organisation with a mandate to map the entire ocean floor, and traces its origins to the GEBCO chart series initiated in 1903 by Prince Albert I of Monaco.

The Project was launched at the United Nations Ocean Conference in 2017, and coordinates and oversees the sourcing and compilation of bathymetric data from different parts of the world’s ocean through its five centres into the freely-available GEBCO Grid.

In the past, satellites and planes carrying altimeter instruments have been able to provide large swathes of data about the ocean floor. The Seabed 2030 Project, however, aims to obtain higher quality information that has a minimum resolution of 100 m at all spots, using equipment such as deepwater hull-mounted sonar systems, and more advanced options such as Underwater Vehicles (AUVs). For this, the project aims to rope in governments, private companies, and international organisations to acquire data.

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