The ocean floor is Earth’s final frontier – meet the experts learning its secrets

The Gebco-Nippon Foundations bathymetric map of the Hawaiian Islands

It was dark down there,” says Dr Jon Copley. Five years ago, the associate professor of ocean exploration at the University of Southampton joined Japanese scientists on the first manned mission to the deepest known hydrothermal vents, 5,000m down on the ocean floor….

It was great to be able to speak to the great British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes for the piece.

Check out my latest hit piece for the i paper in full below, or the original by following the link here. The feature made Editor’s choice and the Daily Newsletter.

It was dark down there,” says Dr Jon Copley. Five years ago, the associate professor of ocean exploration at the University of Southampton joined Japanese scientists on the first manned mission to the deepest known hydrothermal vents, 5,000m down on the ocean floor.

“In the lights of the submarine, I saw a landscape that had been shaped by volcanic eruptions. Lava formations frozen into incredible twisted shapes. The soft rain of green snow, which is organic particles coming down from above and which blankets everything,” he says.

It has been estimated that less than 20 per cent of the seabed has been mapped. Two years ago, the Shell Ocean Discovery XPrize competition was launched to encourage the development of technology to speed up the process. It is a $7m (£5.4m) global competition to advance ocean technologies for rapid, unmanned and high-resolution ocean exploration.

The race to map the ocean floor

The inconclusive hunt for the missing MH370 airliner shows what a massive undertaking mapping the ocean floor is. The hydrothermal vents Copley dived to were only discovered in the 1970s.

“People say that there is nowhere left to explore on this planet. They are wrong!” says British explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, who is due to launch his own expedition to the seabed soon. “The ocean floor is the last place left on Earth to explore. About 70 per cent of the Earth’s surface is covered by oceans, yet our maps of the ocean floor are less detailed than our maps of the surface of Mars and Venus.

“Now the race is on to map them to an unprecedented level of detail. We won’t discover Atlantis, but we will discover cities that did sink below the waves, forgotten shipwrecks, new species of animals – perhaps even new kinds of life – and amazing new geological formations.”

Sir Ranulph Fiennes (Photo: Getty)

The economic drive for knowledge

There are a number of companies and organisations already in the running. Last year the Nippon Foundation-Gebco Seabed 2030 Project grabbed the headlines when it set itself the goal to produce the first definitive map of the world ocean floor by 2030. The Nippon Foundation is one of Japan’s largest foundations.

Gebco (General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans) is an international team of experts that has the authority to map the entire ocean.  Some would say economics, in the form of commercial deep-sea mining, is the main driver to map the sea. More comprehensive maps are vital if rare metal alloys, oil and even diamonds are going to be mined there.

“What matters are the reasons that you use the map rather than the mapping itself,” says Copley. “Yes, maps will help deep-sea mining, but the maps will also help us create marine protection zones.”

A British success story

The UK Hydrographic Office (UKHO) is a British success story whose charts can be found on more than 90 per cent of the world’s international shipping. The UKHO is involved in Seabed 2030 as well.

Over the past year, its surveyors have uncovered the ghostly remains of uncharted shipwrecks in the Demerara Ships Channel in Guyana and in Montserrat.

“Surveying the deep oceans is still remarkably difficult,” says John Humphrey, chief executive of the UKHO. “This is because some of the depths really take your breath away. We are talking thousands of metres, and a great of deal of modern sonar equipment doesn’t really work beyond about 800m.

“The core technology is multibeam sonar,” he explains. “You send out a sound pulse and get a return. Now, instead of a single track heading out and coming back, there are multiple signals heading out and coming back in three dimensions.”

UAVs, or submersible systems, can swim closer to the seabed and, even in deep water, achieve a better resolution than a ship-mounted system.

A high-density field of corals (Photo: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research)

Every sailor is now an explorer

In a sense, crowdsourcing has turned every sailor into an explorer. The companies searching for MH370 provided their data. Commercial shipping shares its data and even mining companies have been said to do so. The UKHO has developed an app that allows a mariner to take a picture of a feature on their smartphone, add a note and press send.

“The problem is that we are providing safety-critical information, so we have to make sure the crowdsourced information is accurate. One of the things we are trying to do as a community is to provide international standards for it,” Humphrey says.

The role of artificial intelligence

More advanced technology may be vital if the whole of the ocean floor is to be mapped. “Artificial intelligence is a turning point,” he says. “It is vital in letting us extract more useful data from the areas that we have surveyed.”

Copley adds: “With the new generation of robot vehicles, we could get little fleets of autonomous vehicles working together to map an area.”

Projects such as Seabed 2030 are only the start of the journey into the final frontier. “By 2030 we will have a map with a certain level of detail,” adds Copley, “but we won’t have any idea of what lives down there or how things change over the seasons. Having a map is the start of the exploration – it really doesn’t have an end.”

An autonomous underwater vehicle (Photo: Fugro)

Sea change: maps first, then autonomous ships

The safety of sailors at sea has always been one of the motivations for mapping the ocean. Ships must now be equipped with an electronic chart display and information system (ECDIS).

To begin with, these electronic charts were just the old paper charts scanned in. Now the ship’s computers will be able to use charts that are mapped to an unparalleled level of detail to avoid obstacles.

Rather like the digital mapping of city streets for autonomous vehicles, these digital maps will also help speed up the introduction of autonomous ships in the future.

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