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Deeply Talks: Behind the Quest to Map the Seabed by 2030

Mars is mapped in better detail than the ocean floor, which is why a project on the scale of some space missions was launched to change that. Listen to experts discuss how Seabed 2030 will work and what it could mean for marine conservation.

Written by Ian Evans Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes
Modern sonar technology allows ships to make detailed maps of the seafloor.NOAA's National Ocean Service

In this episode of Deeply Talks, Jessica Leber, Oceans Deeply’s deputy managing editor, talks with two experts about Seabed 2030, an ambitious project to map the seafloor over the next 12 years. Jessica is joined by Vicki Ferrini, a research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Seabed 2030’s regional coordinator for the Atlantic and Indian oceans, and Samuel Georgian, a marine biogeographer at the Marine Conservation Institute.

Only 5 percent of the seabed has been mapped at high resolution, leaving scientists at a disadvantage as they work to understand how the ocean functions and to protect deep marine biodiversity.

Seabed 2030 – a collaboration between the Nippon Foundation and the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO) – recently unveiled a program to compile existing data and coordinate mapping missions that will fill in the gaps. Advances in mapping and autonomous vehicle technology, as well as increasing attention to ocean conservation, are spurring the project, Ferrini said.

Georgian, who isn’t directly involved in the project, described how a better seabed map would be invaluable to conservationists, and especially in his own work on deep-sea coral ecosystems.

“Simply put, we can’t study and we can’t protect these animals if we don’t know where they are,” said Georgian. “If we can incorporate this data into models, we can produce predictive maps of where we would expect to find corals, sponges. If we can understand where, and why, they exist on the seafloor, we can start to advocate for protecting these areas.”

The Seabed 2030 team has plenty of work ahead. It would take a single ship with modern sonar technology an estimated 350 years to map the entire seabed that is deeper than 200m (650ft), Ferrini said.

“Clearly, we want to get more ships involved to speed that up,” she said. “We estimate that the initiative could cost as much as $3 billion, which is in the order of some of the space missions that are run,” she said.

The project aims to work with private industry, and Ferrini invited any ships that can help collect this data to collaborate. “In many ways, the whole project you could view as crowdsourcing,” she said, “because we’re trying to bring the data of many stakeholders into the mix here.”

To learn more about mapping the seafloor, listen to the Deeply Talks episode. For advance notice of upcoming Deeply Talks and other News Deeply events, subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

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