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Editor’s welcome

Words by Amy Whitchurch
24 May 2023

“100 % of the ocean floor mapped by 2030”

The mission statement for the UN-backed Seabed 2030 project sounds ambitious given only 6% of the seabed was mapped in detail (by modern standards) in 2017 when the project was launched and, as of end-2022, the coverage stands at just 23.4%. While mapping the remaining three quarters of our planet’s ocean floor in just eight years may seem like a herculean task, efforts to meet this goal are accelerating and, as highlighted in a fascinating interview with Dawn Wright – a geologist and oceanographer who last summer descended the deepest point on our planet, Challenger Deep – technology is on our side.

Satellite gravity measurements reveal the general shape of the seabed but this approach can only resolve features to within a few kilometres. Seabed 2030 is aiming for “the best possible resolution within practical limits”, meaning 100 x 100 m resolution for the shallowest seabed (<1.5 km depth) and 800 x 800 m resolution for the very deepest parts of the ocean, which requires echo-beam sounders attached to marine vessels. It would take a single ship over 350 years to complete this task alone, so Seabed 2030 is calling on every sea-faring vessel – government, research or privately operated – to fit an (increasingly affordable) echo-sounder, measure as they go (no matter their route) and upload the data to the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans global grid (which is free and publicly available). 

While this approach has proved fruitful, the success of the project ultimately relies on automated vehicles. Global competitions such as the $7m Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE, which challenged teams to “advance deep-sea technologies for autonomous, fast, high-resolution ocean exploration”, help drive innovation. The GEBCO-Nippon Foundation Alumni Team triumphed in 2019 by developing an unmanned surface vessel that can launch and recover an autonomous underwater vehicle, mapping swathes of the seabed and reporting the data without human intervention in an approach that significantly reduces the time, cost and carbon emissions associated with ocean mapping missions. Innovations like these will help steer Seabed 2030 across the finish line. 

The sustainable use and management of the marine realm requires not only knowledge of bathymetry, but also a good understanding of the geology. So, the British Geological Survey are combining the detailed bathymetry with other data, such as seismic surveys and core samples, to create fine-scale offshore geological maps – as exemplified by our striking cover. The maps stimulated considerable discussion among our editorial panel who highlighted, for example, the potential to inform on the siting of a geological disposal facility for nuclear waste, extraction of large volumes of sand and gravel for the construction industry, or even to guide investigations into where prehistoric peoples lived and hunted. The geoscience community is encouraged to explore these incredible new resources. It will be fascinating to see what big questions they help answer.

With President’s Day and the AGM approaching on 14 June, this edition also includes interviews with two awardees, Kathy Whaler and Emily Swaby, while the Annual Review  sets out what the Society has achieved over the last year.

Amy Whitchurch, Executive Editor

Further reading

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