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Mapping beyond boundaries

Over 70% of Earth’s surface is covered by ocean, yet only approximately a fifth of the seabed has been mapped. Dawn Wright discusses how geographic information systems can pave the way for mapping hostile marine environments and reflects on her historic dive to Challenger Deep.

Words by Dawn Wright
11 April 2023
Hannah Bird

Bathymetric map of the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean, which contains the Challenger Deep – the deepest point on Earth. (Credit: Map by Jesse Allen, made with data from the University of New Hampshire Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping/NOAA Joint Hydrographic Center. Via NASA.)

From the volcanic sand beaches of Maui, Hawaii, Dawn Wright evolved childhood exploration of her homeland into a career discovering the depths of the ocean, and in July 2022 became the first person of African descent to dive to the world’s deepest point, Challenger Deep, in the western Pacific Ocean.

Dawn spent 17 years working in academia at Oregon State University, USA, before joining the Environmental Systems Research Institute (Esri) in California as Chief Scientist in 2011. This world-leading geographic information system (GIS) software and data science company fosters continued exploration of Dawn’s research interests in mapping and interpretation of the seafloor, particularly coral reefs, using multibeam bathymetry, side-scan sonar, towed camera imagery and submersible observations.

Seabed 2030

The importance of mapping the seabed and better understanding the ocean has far-reaching impacts. We depend on the ocean for many elements of our daily lives, from the fauna and flora that call it home and ultimately feed into whole-Earth ecological systems, to the vast transport highways for trade that support the global economy. The monitoring of natural hazards (particularly zones susceptible to undersea volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis) is essential not only for the local communities they impact, but also for the network of subterranean cables that cross the seafloor and support global communications. Knowledge of the seabed is also critical for offshore energy supplies, these being new renewable sources, offshore drilling, or the siting of pipelines.

We depend on the ocean for many elements of our daily lives

However, as of 2022, only 23% of the seabed has been mapped in high resolution. To address this gap in data and understanding, the Seabed 2030 project (seabed2030.org) – a collaboration between the Nippon Foundation, Japan, and the international non-profit organisation General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO) – was launched. Formally endorsed by the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (The Ocean Decade; oceandecade.org), Seabed 2030 aims to create the most comprehensive mapping of the ocean floor by that decade and to make the data freely available to all. Vital to the success of the project is the continued development of technologies that allow GIS to operate in the most remote areas of the planet.

Challenging the deep

Mapping in the hostile environment of Challenger Deep at the southern end of the Mariana Trench is difficult due to the intense pressure encountered near the seabed. Here the Pacific Plate subducts westwards beneath the Mariana Plate, creating an oceanic trench that reaches approximately 10,935 metres below the sea surface at its deepest point.

One of the main objectives of Dawn’s four-hour descent to the ocean floor in the deep submergence vessel (DSV) Limiting Factor – essentially a custom-made titanium sphere – was to test the durability of new portable side-scan sonar instrumentation and take high-resolution images of the seafloor. Such instruments would normally implode under the pressures found at depths greater than 6,000 metres, yet the dive was a success. Dawn, together with explorer and DSV pilot Victor Vescovo, were able to capture detailed images of the seabed in a world first for side-scan sonar operating at the greatest depths of the ocean.

Dawn Wright and Victor Vescovo inside the control capsule of the submersible DSV Limiting Factor during a dive to ~10,935 m in the Challenger Deep on 12 July 2022. (Credit: Victor Vescovo, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The data and maps will soon be available on Esri’s ArcGIS Living Atlas of the World and via GEBCO, helping to build a more detailed picture of the structure of the trench and a greater general understanding of Earth’s last frontier – the deep ocean.

On the heritage significance of the dive, Dawn highlights the importance of encouraging diverse talent into geoscience, emphasising that there are roles for environmental professionals in the information technology sector.

“I think it’s really significant to be ‘the first’ as a way to inspire and encourage others, so that they can see that something like this is possible for them, that a career in oceanography, mapping or exploration is not off-limits to them because they come from a certain community.

“Ultimately, I do truly hope that this adventure will inspire young people, as well as early career academics and scientists of all persuasions, to live out their own dreams. Science, the ocean, and Earth will be better for it.”

Challenger Deep

A view of the southern subduction wall in the Western Pool of Challenger Deep, Mariana Trench taken from inside the submersible DSV Limiting Factor on 12 July 2022. (Credit: Victor Vescovo, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Embrace technology

Beyond mapping, GIS can be used to tackle some of the great ocean-related challenges, such as resource management, environmental sustainability, aquaculture and marine debris. Dawn notes that we are “out of balance with nature, constantly creating conflicts and instabilities”, and offers a stark warning that now is the time to embrace technologies to reverse some of the issues we currently face.

“It’s safe to say that what we’ve done with environmental degradation and the issues of social instability will require us to create equitable solutions for the rest of our lives, requiring new governance, new policies, new market approaches and certainly new technologies. Indeed, while time is not on our side, happily I think technology is.”

Dawn adds that geospatial technology is becoming the core of climate action, suggesting that “with so many digital tools producing and collecting so much important data, geospatial technology in the form of GIS is the framework that can make it all work together”.

Geospatial technology is becoming the core of climate action

“GIS is pulling in data from spreadsheets, satellites and drone photos, then displaying it in a visual way, on smart maps, showing us relationships, patterns and risks we may not have recognised before. We can then see the solutions and make decisions about where and how to act.

“This approach integrates and supports powerful methodologies: geoanalytics, creating insights and understanding; geovisualisation, a language through maps and visualisation for communicating the content and the context of our world; geodesign, for designing sustainable and inclusive futures; geocollaboration, engaging communities with open data, mapping and analytical portals that help us fill in our knowledge gaps, accelerate our understanding, turbocharge collaboration and take action; and geoaccounting, being able to account for all the factors, such as biodiversity and human uses of the ocean, setting up balanced measures that are driven by our shared value of the ocean, our knowledge, climate financing and much more.”

Dawn feels that substantive, multi-collaborative projects, such as Seabed 2030, will give the Ocean Decade “real teeth, true implementation rigor and a huge amount of momentum”, and she feels optimistic about the targets.

“Seabed 2030 is the definitive global multinational, multi-institutional program to map 100% of the ocean floor at a level of detail similar to what we already have on land. It is extremely ambitious, but I think doable.”



Dr Dawn Wright is Chief Scientist of Esri, California, USA, and Courtesy Professor in the College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, Oregon State University, USA.

Interview by Hannah Bird, a Doctoral Researcher in Micropalaeontology, Oceanography and Climate Science at the University of Birmingham, UK, and member of the Geoscientist contributors team.

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