Why The First Complete Map of the Ocean Floor Is Stirring Controversial Waters

Date: July 13, 2017

Source: Smithsonian.com
Author: Kyle Frischkorn

Charting these watery depths could transform oceanography. It could also aid deep sea miners looking for profit. 

Earth has no shortage of stunning landforms: Mt. Everest rises majestically above the clouds; the Grand Canyon rents deep into desert rock layers; the mountains that make up the Ethiopian Highlands, aka the Roof of Africa, tower above the rest of the continent. But all of these natural icons pale in comparison to the dramatic formations that lie beneath the ocean. Next to the deep sea’s mountains and gorges, the Grand Canyon is a mere dimple, Mount Everest a bunny slope and the Highlands an anthill on the horn of Africa.

The shape of the ocean floor helps determine weather patterns, when and where tsunamis will strike and management of fisheries that feed millions. And yet we’ve barely begun to understand it. To borrow an analogy from oceanographer Robert Ballard, best known for re-discovering the Titanic: With only 5 percent of the ocean floor mapped, our knowledge of what’s beneath is about as detailed as a set dinner table with a wet blanket thrown over it. You can see the outlines, but how do you tell the candelabra from the turkey?

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