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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