One million square kilometers. Sounds like a pretty big area, doesn’t it? It is!
In early 2014, NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer surpassed having mapped 1,000,000 square kilometers of the seafloor using high-resolution multibeam sonar. For perspective, one million square kilometers is bigger than the areas of Texas and Arizona combined.
While we do have low-resolution maps of the ocean floor derived from satellite altimetry data, these maps only give us an overall general picture of what’s down there. They offer limited detail of the seafloor and can omit things like seamounts, volcanic craters, or shipwrecks. The coverage of high-resolution seafloor data, such as that collected by the Okeanos Explorer, is very limited in the deep sea. Yet having a comprehensive visual of the seafloor is critical to understanding, managing, and protecting our planet.
Over the last eight years of mapping the seafloor, the Okeanos team has contributed critical ocean science datasets for many of our world’s ocean basins. In the process of mapping 1,000,000 square kilometers, the Okeanos multibeam sonar revealed numerous geologic features, including seamounts, trenches, ridges, wrecks, and banks that had previously been unknown or incorrectly characterized.
Detailed seafloor maps, such as those generated from high-resolution multibeam data, are also essential for exploration and baseline characterization of the ocean environment. The data collected by the Okeanos has been essential in better planning subsequent research and exploration missions on the Okeanos and partner vessels.
The team had several other accomplishments along the way to this milestone, including:
Given that only about 10 percent of the entire planet’s seafloor has been mapped at high resolution, it makes the Okeanos’ “one-million” mark that much more significant. However, when you consider that the ocean covers 335,258,000 square kilometers, it makes you realize just how much further we have to go to fully understand this dynamic planet. We’re just getting started, and new partners, new technologies, and new approaches will be fundamental to increasing the pace and efficiency of seafloor mapping.