The unknown hit the USS San Francisco like a torpedo. On January 8, 2005, the nuclear submarine was barreling along at 38 miles per hour, 525 feet beneath the surface. Such vessels often travel in virtual blindness, forgoing radar and its telltale pings; the crew relied on seafloor charts to navigate. But the maps were incomplete.
About 360 miles southeast of Guam, the sub slammed into an unmapped underwater mountain. The collision sent sailors crashing into walls and flying across rooms. Nearly 100 of 137 crew members aboard were injured, and one died from a massive head wound. Commander Kevin Mooney was discharged and reprimanded by Navy higher-ups for “an ill-advised voyage plan” because one map noted that there was a potential navigational hazard several miles from the site of impact, but the lack of precise charts undoubtedly played a major role in the accident.
Welcome to life on a little-known planet. To date, more than 85 percent of the seafloor has not been mapped using modern methods. Since 70 percent of the Earth is covered in oceans, this means that we quite literally don’t know our own planet. “We know the surface of Mars better than we do the seafloor,” says Martin Jakobsson, a researcher at Stockholm University.
A group of scientists and mariners is trying to change that. In June, the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO), an organization that is affiliated with the United Nations, convened in Monaco and hammered out an ambitious plan to map most of the world’s seafloor by 2030.
Monaco was a fitting location to unveil such a grand scheme. In this small principality, just over 110 years ago, Prince Albert I founded GEBCO with the eventual goal of charting the Earth’s oceans. At the opening of this year’s meeting, the royal’s great-great-grandson, Prince Albert II, opened the gathering to a standing ovation, telling the crowd that he supports their mission both personally and as a head of state. “Much will depend on the actions you take,” he said.
Meeting participants pointed out that an in-depth knowledge of the seafloor isn’t important just for navigation. It’s also vital to understanding where tsunamis are likely to travel (since they are guided by the ocean bottom) and the history of our climate (since glaciers leave marks on the seafloor that give clues about past temperatures). And such explorations will also reveal new life forms, which could hold the key to treating disease; drugs derived from undersea animals have been used to treat cancer, alleviate pain and help wounds heal.
The scientists face a tough challenge. The hurdles are many: a lack of funding and properly equipped ships; the sheer size of the ocean, as well as the remoteness and intractability of parts of it; and a reticence of companies and governments to share mapping data they’ve collected.
Larry Mayer, an oceanographer at the University of New Hampshire who has been on more than 90 mapping cruises, says the goal could be accomplished for around $3 billion, equivalent to the cost of a single mission to Mars. Nobody has come up with that kind of money yet (are you reading this, Elon Musk?), but many projects are nevertheless going forward, and organizations like Japan’s Nippon Foundation (which helped support the meeting) are funding efforts. Mayer’s group actively maps along the East Coast of the United States and the Arctic, for example. He supplies his data to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which makes the information available to the public.
Robert Ballard, an explorer whose teams found the wrecks of the Titanic and the Bismarck, makes much of his work even more open-source. He operates a vessel known as the E/V Nautilus, which maps and conducts biological field work off the Pacific Coast. The ship broadcasts online much of what it’s doing, and part of its mission involves finding experts at a moment’s notice to inform the ship’s crew about what they happen to be squinting at on the seafloor, be it an odd sponge or a shipwreck. The public can watch much of this action online at NautilusLive.org.
Governments and militaries, as well as companies involved in offshore petroleum and undersea cables, have done a fair amount of mapping that they don’t share with the outside world. During and after the meeting, however, GEBCO participants have made inroads into gaining access to this vast trove of information, Mayer says. For example, one cable company known as Quintillion has agreed to release its data to NOAA. Many more negotiations are moving forward, though they can’t be revealed yet for fear of quashing the talks, he adds.
Contractors like Fugro, which specializes in seafloor mapping, do much of the work. However, the companies that pay them own the data, and as it usually gives them a competitive advantage (as in the case of oil drillers), they are understandably unlikely to open their charts. To help the effort, Fugro President Edward Saade says the company plans to start mapping the seafloor while its ships are en route to and from jobs and to share this information with researchers.
In the past year and a half, the company—the biggest of its kind—has mapped nearly 390,000 square miles of seafloor, an area the size of Egypt. That’s about 1/300th of the world’s total deep seafloor area, Saade says. These kinds of numbers suggest that the whole seafloor really can be mapped, given the right commitment, he adds.
When Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing over the Pacific, it showed not only how little we know about the seafloor but also how much can be accomplished in a short amount of time. In the area the plane is thought to have crashed, the maps were nearly nonexistent. As with much of the ocean, the only charts were based on satellite measurements. These so-called altimetry readings measure the strength of gravity at the sea surface and can reveal large underwater peaks known as seamounts. But their resolution is at the scale of 1.5 kilometers or more—nearly a mile (meaning one measurement is taken every 1,500 meters). The representation of the seafloor that you can see on Google Earth, for example, is made with these limited satellite readings, and many people can be confused into thinking that our maps are more accurate than they are. John Hall, a retired researcher with the Geological Survey of Israel, estimates that only 10 percent of the world’s seamounts have been found.
Fugro was tasked with mapping this area, working with the Australian government and international partners. Over the course of several months, Fugro mapped an area larger than the state of Pennsylvania. (But it still didn’t find the plane.)
There are also a growing number of crowdsourcing projects that will help reach the 2030 goal. Lieutenant Anthony Klemm, an officer aboard the NOAA research vessel Thomas Jefferson, started a pilot project that allows mariners to seamlessly share their mapping information. It works with software made by a company called Rose Point Navigation Systems, and it allows mariners to simply click a box and share their info (anonymously, if desired), transmitting it to a database housed on a government server that’s open to the researchers and the public.
Currently, the most efficient way to map involves the use of multibeam sonar, which sends pulses of sound that bounce off the seafloor and back. Autonomous underwater vehicles can also be used, though they are less efficient. At the meeting, Mayer floated the idea of an unmanned barge, equipped with multibeam sonar, that could roam the seas while continuously mapping, which would cost about one-third as much as a manned vessel.
“We’ve got the tools,” says Bjorn Jalving, with Kongsberg Maritime, a company that makes mapping tools. “Now we just need to work out how to best use them.”
However, like the barge, some of the technologies or devices that could lead to success probably don’t exist yet. Enter the XPrize Foundation, which is probably best known for holding contests to encourage private exploration of space. The organization has created a $7 million contest to “incentivize a new era of ocean exploration,” says Jyotika Virmani, with the group. The competition will unfold in two rounds over the next three years, in which teams must create a mostly autonomous device that can map the seafloor and identify certain objects. The prize will be divided: The winning team gets $4 million, while three other teams each get $1 million for accomplishing various goals.
One of the fiercest debates at the meeting revolved around resolution. How precise do the charts need to be? “We are lost in terms of where we are,” said Shin Tani, chairman of the GEBCO Guiding Committee and a former vice admiral in the Japan Coast Guard. Some people want a resolution of 1 meter, some 10 meters, some 50 meters or more. Generally, the consensus seems to be that even having a single measurement every 100 meters or so be would a vast improvement over what we currently have. Gaps could then be filled in by further missions or autonomous underwater vehicles—perhaps something the XPrize contest could help provide.
Another debate that simmered beneath the surface was over the possibility—or inevitability, depending on who you ask—of seafloor mining. David Heydon, who founded the underwater mining company Nautilus Minerals and who is deputy chairman of DeepGreen Resources, made the case that humans should start mining the oceans for minerals that are plentiful in some places, like copper, manganese, phosphorous, even diamonds and rare earth metals. Humans live on the 30 percent of the Earth that they mine, and there could be environmental benefits to going into the ocean, he says. However, environmental lawyer Kristina Gjerde, an adviser to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, countered that much more research should be done before mining goes forward, since we know very little about the creatures that live there.
One thing they can both agree upon, however, is that more exploration is vital. As Gjerde says, “We still don’t know the most basic information about the seafloor and its ecology.”