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New Ocean Map Reveals Secrets of the Sea

Oct 03, 2014 11:17 AM EDT

A new map of the ocean floor has revealed secrets of the unexplored sea, specifically thousands of uncharted mountains that lend clues to the formation of Earth's continents, according to new research.

Created by scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, the map combines three decades of existing satellite data with new measurements from the European Space Agency's (ESA) CryoSat-2 satellite, which mainly monitors polar ice caps, but studies the global oceans as well.

What was most surprising is that these untapped streams of satellite data painted a much more vivid picture of the structures that make up the deepest, least-explored parts of the ocean. This includes thousands of undersea mountains, or seamounts, extending a kilometer (0.62 miles) or more from the ocean bottom.

"The kinds of things you can see very clearly now are abyssal hills, which are the most common land form on the planet," David Sandwell, lead scientist of the paper and a geophysics professor at Scripps, said in a statement.

In addition to these seamounts, the new map has also revealed an extinct mid-ocean ridge where the seafloor spread apart to help open up the Gulf of Mexico about 150 million years ago, as well as a huge rift scar in the South Atlantic Ocean that formed when Africa separated from South America.

Such structures are often covered by deep sediments and only become visible in the new satellite data. A more detailed understanding of the topography of the sea floor will help scientists better understand ocean water mixing and circulation patterns, which affect Earth's climate. It will also lend clues to the formation of Earth's continents.

The research, published in the journal Science, will most importantly help researchers explore the 80 percent of Earth's ocean floor that is still unmapped.

According to collaborator Dietmar Müller from the University of Sydney, "We know much more about the topography of Mars than we know about the seafloor," he told BBC News.

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