now visualize the ocean floor

Technological Revolutions In Sensors, Robotics, And Telecommunications Allow New Views Of Ocean
Washington DC – Scientists can now visualize the ocean floor in remote areas of the Arctic, observe rockfish hideouts, and see live images of coral cities thousands of meters under the sea’s surface. Soon their robots will be able to “live” on the bottom of the ocean – monitoring everything from signs of tsunamis to the effects of deep sea drilling.

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Related sections: Matter & Energy
Earth & Climate

“We have very complex problems in the ocean, but we’ve been looking at things through a narrow straw,” explains James Bellingham of the Monterey Bay Research Institute. “We’re trying to expand this view – this is about turning the ocean transparent.”

In an American Association for the Advancement of Science press conference on February 19th at 2 PM, scientists will discuss innovations in underwater research and how they are advancing both science and management.

“For every tool we have to explore outer space – space stations, tethered missions, rovers, mapping – we have a comparable tool for ocean exploration,” says James Lindholm of the Pfleger Institute. “This suite of technologies allows us to study an environment that is equally hostile to human life.”

“It’s exciting,” adds Les Watling of the University of Maine. “There hasn’t been this level of true exploration in the ocean for a hundred years.”

New Powers of Mapping

In the past, seafloor maps were constructed based on individual depth measurements, taken laboriously at discreet points in the sea. These points formed a connect-the-dots type picture that scientists could use to draw maps, but that was as good as it got. “You can connect the dots and get an outline, but this is like the difference between a dot-to-dot outline of someone’s face and a photograph of the person,” says Larry Mayer of the University of New Hampshire.

Today, multi-beam sonar sprays sound waves to scan the ocean floor, revealing everything from 3 centimeter sand ridges to 4,000 meter undersea mountains – from gun barrels off the coasts of Normandy to the contours of a favorite fishing ground. The technology for this detailed mapping has been around for several years, but, as Mayer explains, “Every time we go out there, we find tons of surprises, features we didn’t know were there.”

“Over 90% of U.S. imports come in by ship,” adds Mayer. “If these ships run aground or have a spill it’s a problem – detailed maps can prevent these accidents. It’s important for safety and for the environment.”

Mayer and his group are currently mapping unexplored areas of the Arctic. In 2003, his team found a seamount rising 3,000 meters from the ocean floor – a navigational hazard that wasn’t on any of the charts, despite high sub traffic in the area. The importance of this finding was highlighted last month, when the USS San Francisco – a Navy attack submarine – ran aground on an uncharted sea mount, killing one crew member and injuring dozens.

Mayer’s team also uses 3D visualizations of the ocean floor to help managers, fishermen, and conservationists find new solutions for protecting resources. They brought scallop fishermen into their labs to “fly them through” a 3D, underwater image of their fishing grounds. “They’d known these areas for years, but now they could finally see it,” says Mayer. The best of these fishermen recognized the seafloor they had been mentally visualizing, calling out pet names of familiar bumps where fish and shellfish congregate. Ironically, the new technology takes away the competitive edge of these experienced fishermen and makes it easier for a population to be overfished, but it can also create win-win situations. Fishermen can place their rakes exactly where the scallops are, reducing the number of damaging trawls along the bottom and allowing them to use lighter, more environmentally safe gear. They can also catch their quota in one quarter of the time, which could lead to fewer ship and fuel costs.

Managers can also make use of multi-beam sonar to monitor fishing activity in areas that are closed or protected from specific gear. With the detailed mapping systems, scientists can see trawl marks across the seafloor. New studies are examining the staying time of such marks so that the maps can be used to uncover illegal fishing practices.

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