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Sea views: mapping the ocean floor

Sea views: mapping the ocean floor
30 Aug
A project to map the ocean floor is raising concerns about prospective deep-sea mining operations

If all the water in the seas suddenly disappeared, we would be shocked by the strange, new world of seamounts, gullies, sheer cliffs and plains that would be revealed – some in places where they would not be expected. That’s because less than 15 per cent of the seafloor is mapped in reliable detail, a fact that non-profit mapping outfit, the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO), wants to change.

In partnership with Japanese humanitarian organisation The Nippon Foundation, GEBCO hopes to have mapped the entirety of the ocean floor – in unprecedented high-resolution detail – by 2030. This is to be achieved through the collation of existing and new sea mapping data from a wide variety of external sea-going sources, identifying data gaps and initiating mapping projects to fill in areas of uncertainty. Four regional data centres in Germany, New Zealand, the United States and Sweden will cover different regions of the planet’s oceans, with a fifth ‘global coordination centre’ overseeing the entire project from the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton.

‘It is a timely, relevant and essential first step towards better understanding our ocean and our planet,’ says Kristina Gjerde, a senior high seas policy advisor for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. ‘The more we learn about the configuration of the sea floor, the more we can understand Earth’s geology, climate and ocean dynamics, as well as the variety of habitats for marine life.’ A better map of the seabed would improve our understanding of climate and weather systems and even help predict disasters – the shape of the seafloor helps directs ocean circulation as well as the course of tsunamis.

atlanticThe ocean seabed is yet to be mapped in detail – but this might soon change (Image: GEBCO)

However, some scientists have raised concerns that increased knowledge of the seabed could also enable deep-sea mining prospectors to hone in on new bounties. Mining the seabed is a controversial practice: while it may relieve terrestrial ecosystems of mining pressure, it has untold impact on seabed ecosystems. ‘We need to make sure that globally agreed rules are in place to make sure that the data is not abused, that effective conservation measures are taken,’ says Gjerde, ‘and that any uses made with the seafloor data are effectively controlled.’

The United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea – often described as a ‘constitution for the oceans’ – provides fair rules about who can profit from seabed resources. It says little, however, when it comes to biodiversity, which is one of many reasons why major steps are being taken by the UN General Assembly to write a new treaty as soon as possible, one that safeguards mammals and ecosystems in the high seas.

This was published in the September 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

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