Satellite Data Maps Sea Floor’s Hidden Depths

Oct 6, 2014

Image credit: David Sandwell, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego

By Loren Grush

While many detailed maps exist of Earth’s continents, what lies beneath our planet’s waters has remained somewhat of a mystery. So far, only 10 percent of the seafloor has been mapped at high resolution, leaving researchers pretty eager to know what’s going on in that other 90 percent.

Well now, researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego are painting in the rest of the picture. Harnessing never-before-used satellite altimeter data from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) CryoSat-2 and NASA’s Jason-1, the scientists have created stunning maps of Earth’s entire seafloor, bringing to light mountains and ridges that have never before been charted. The maps give the researchers a new understanding of deep ocean plate tectonics and little-studied ocean basins.

The vibrant images of these underwater landscapes were crafted by measuring gravity at various parts of the ocean. According to lead researcher David Sandwell, both the satellites are tasked with capturing the Earth’s gravity field over the oceans.

“The satellites orbit the earth and sends out thousands of radar pulses a second,” Sandwell, a geophysics professor at Scripps. tells Popular Science. “So we use that data to generate a topography of the ocean’s surface.” That topography highlights subtle variations and bumps in the oceans’ waters, telling a lot about the surface underneath. For example, if the ocean is slightly raised at one point, it serves as an indication of a larger object below.

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One comment on “Satellite Data Maps Sea Floor’s Hidden Depths”

  • Here is a BBC link to an article on the same paper.

    It is not every day you can announce the discovery of thousands of new mountains on Earth, but that is what a US-European research team has done.

    What is more, these peaks are all at least 1.5km high.

    The reason they have gone unrecognised until now is because they are at the bottom of the ocean.

    Dave Sandwell and colleagues used radar satellites to discern the mountains’ presence under water and report their findings in Science Magazine.
    “In the previous radar dataset we could see everything taller than 2km, and there were 5,000 seamounts,” Prof Sandwell told BBC News.

    “With our new dataset – and we haven’t fully done the work yet – I’m guessing we can see things that are 1.5km tall.

    “That might not sound like a huge improvement but the number of seamounts goes up exponentially with decreasing size.

    “So, we may be able to detect another 25,000 on top of the 5,000 already known,” the Scripps Institution of Oceanography researcher explained.

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