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

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? Fortunately, we’re about to whip the blanket off and reveal this aquatic meal in exquisite detail. In June, an international team of oceanographers launched the first effort to create a comprehensive map of all the world’s oceans. To map some 140 million square miles of sea floor, the Seabed 2030 project is currently recruiting around 100 ships that will circumscribe the globe for 13 years. The team, united under the non-profit group General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO), recently announced it had received $18.5 million dollars from the Nippon Foundation for its efforts. Many oceanographers hail the project as an illumination of a geological and biological world that is long overdue. It could also be potentially lifesaving: Even today, the lack of a detailed map can be deadly, as was the case when the USS San Francisco crashed into an uncharted mountain in 2005. “People have been excited about going to different planets,” says Martin Jakobsson, professor of marine geology and geophysics at Stockholm University, but “we haven’t been able to bring the attention to our own Earth in the same way as Mars. It hasn’t been easy to rally the whole world behind us.” Yet at the same time, some ecologists fear that such a map will also aid mining industries who seek profit in the previously unattainable depths of the Earth. Read More: Smithsonian

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