Seafloor Mapping: We’ve Come a Long Way – But Still Have Far to Go

TitleSeafloor Mapping: We’ve Come a Long Way – But Still Have Far to Go
Publication TypeConference Abstract
AuthorsMayer, LA
Conference Name2017 Fall Meeting, American Geophysical Union (AGU)
Conference LocationNew Orleans, LA
Conference DatesDecember 11-15

Our ability to map the seafloor has changed radically over the past century. For thousands of years a weight at the end of a rope (or wire) – a lead line -- provided the only means to measure depth. By the end of the Second World War, single beam echo sounders had been perfected to the extent that they became common on oceanographic and other vessels providing more rapid but laterally averaged (typically over a distance commensurate with the water depth) measurements of seafloor depths. Towards the end of the 20th Century – two great advances were made in seafloor mapping – the development of techniques to use satellite altimetry to predict seafloor bathymetry and the evolution of multibeam sonar technology from classified military applications to the academic and commercial communities. Satellite-altimetry derived bathymetry provides an unprecedented view of seafloor topography and tremendous insight into tectonic-scale processes but is limited in achievable resolution. Multibeam sonars offer the potential of extremely high-resolution (a function of array size, beam footprint, and water depth), but are typically deployed from manned surface vessels that cover limited amount of seafloor at a relatively high daily cost. We have the technology to map the entire world ocean with multibeam sonar but It has been estimated that to map the world ocean deeper than about 150m (shallow water is very time-consuming and expensive because the coverage swath width is typically 3-5 times water) would take approximately 200 ship years and cost on the order of 3 billion dollars. We have demonstrated our willingness to spend billions to map other planets (e.g. Mars and the Moon) but for some reason, not our own. Recently, however, there has been growing momentum to see the entire world ocean mapped. The Nippon Foundation and GEBCO have recently announced the Seabed 2030 project with a goal of facilitating the mapping of the world ocean by 2030 and international agreements like The Galway Statement on Atlantic Cooperation are coordinating international efforts to see large portions of the seafloor mapped. Coupled with these international efforts, new technologies like autonomous mapping barges or large-scale multibeam sonar equipped Saildrones may greatly reduce costs and make the dream of mapping the world ocean at high-resolution a reality.