The Quest To Map The Mysteries Of The Ocean Floor
Geologists have charted mountain ranges and forests and desert tundras, astronomers the heavens above, yet our planet’s oceans remain largely unexplored; it’s often said that we have a more complete understanding of the Moon or Mars than we do of our own seabed.
The sea’s terrain plays a critical role in our ecosystem. Underwater crests and valleys determine weather patterns and ocean currents; sea topography influences the management of fisheries that feed millions; miles of underwater cable connect billions more to the Internet; seamounts provide protection against coastal hazards such as approaching hurricanes or tsunamis, and may even offer clues to the prehistoric movement of the earth’s southern continents.
In 2017, an international team of experts from around the world, united under the non-profit General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (Gebco), launched the first effort to create a comprehensive map of the world’s oceans.
While the earliest oceanographers trawled waters one painstaking knot at a time, recent advances in sonar technology mean that a single ship can now provide thousands of square kilometers’ worth of high-resolution maps during an expedition.
But the underwater discoveries that await aren’t only of interest to mapmakers or marine researchers. Far below the ocean’s surface lies buried treasure: precious metals, rare earth elements, oil and diamonds – riches that have, until now, remained inaccessible to even the most intrepid of prospectors.
Some ecologists fear that a map of our sea floor will allow extractive industries the chance to profit from these resources, potentially endangering marine habitats and coastal communities in the process. A global bathymetric map – that is, a map of the ocean’s floor – would certainly offer a better understanding of our blue planet, but it also might plunge us into a realm once reserved for science fiction: robot submarines, underwater volcanoes, sea jewels, coral with pharmaceutical properties, Wild West maritime law, toxic sediment plumes, and an ocean-based enterprise curiously devoid of humans or ships. Once the map is made, will it be used as a tool for responsible management and conservation, or wielded like pirate’s bounty, a guidebook to extraction and exploitation?