Ocean Exploration: Mapping the Seafloor with Geodesy

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In an age where the surface of Mercury and Mars can be mapped in great detail, it’s difficult to imagine how around 85-95 percent of our ocean floor remain enigmatic. While advanced sonar technology has allowed ships to create highly detailed topographic maps, it would take 125-200 ship-years to survey the deep oceans alone, costing billions of dollars. Gravity models are powerful tools for charting large areas of the ocean where tectonic structures and deep ocean basins remain unmapped by ships or hidden under thick sediment.

Global map of the variations in the pull of gravity derived from satellite radar altimetry. http://topex.ucsd.edu/grav_outreach

Image: Global map of the variations in the pull of gravity derived from satellite radar altimetry. http://topex.ucsd.edu/grav_outreach

Now, the new marine gravity model announced by a team of international scientists’ shows unprecedented resolution of the seafloor uncovering several new tectonic features. It is an exciting time for ocean exploration as each new year reveals more of the uncharted oceans, catalyzing new developments in plate tectonics, navigation, petroleum exploration and earthquake forecasting.
While ship-based surveys remain a vital and valuable tool, topographic mapping is limited by the number of ship crossings. As such, only around 11 percent of the seafloor has been mapped at high resolution and 17 percent at lower resolution to date. In 1978, NASA’s Seasat altimeter was the first to demonstrate the ability to gather seafloor bathymetry from space.
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