May 31, 2019

Most of the ocean floor is a mystery, but this technology could help map it

News Source: National Geographic

Author(s): Glenn McDonald

THE NUMBERS ARE startling: According to even the most generous estimates, more than 80 percent of the world's oceans are totally unmapped. The average ocean depth is nearly two and a half miles, and oceans cover 70 percent of the planet. Do the math and, in terms of total volume, 99 percent of Earth's biosphere is essentially unknown.

We think we've explored our planet, but those statistics are sobering. Topographically, we know more about the moon than we do about Earth.

The math is about to get a little brighter, though. The XPRIZE Foundationhas announced the winners of an ambitious three-year program to develop safer, faster, and more affordable ways of mapping the ocean floor. The hope is to eventually map out the entirety of the sea floor and its biosphere, opening vast areas for future exploration and potential scientific discoveries.

The competition's official title is the $7M Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE, and Dr. Jyotika Virmani, XPRIZE executive director, acknowledges some skepticism around the motives of an oil and gas company's funding of the endeavor. Still, she said, industry sponsorship is common in ocean science initiatives. “The entire ocean community—that includes oil and gas companies as well as agencies like NOAA—we're all working toward a common goal, to generate a map of the sea floor that will be available to everyone,” Virmani said, calling in from the awards venue in Monaco.