Gravity’s Magic: New Seafloor Map Shows Earth’s Uncharted Depths

Volcanoes! Seafloor spreading! Hidden ridges and mountains! These are the wonders being revealed in new maps of Earth’s sea floor. And no, it didn’t require a deep-sea dive to get there. Instead we got this information from a clever use of gravity (combining the data of two satellites making measurements from orbit.)

The data has caught the attention of Google, which plans to use this data for its upcoming ocean maps release. Scientists also say the information will tell us more about the 80% of the ocean floor that is either unexamined or obscured by thick sand.

So here’s where the data came from. The Scripps Institution of Oceanography combined information from two satellites — the European Space Agency’s ongoing CryoSat mission and the now defunct Jason-1 satellite from NASA and the French space agency CNES, which was decommissioned in 2013 after nearly 12 years of operations.

CryoSat is designed to map the thickness of ice using a radar altimeter (which is a clue to the effects of climate change). But this altimeter can be used all over the world, including to look at how high the sea floor is. Jason-1, for its part, was told to look at the Earth’s gravity field in the last year of its mission. And what a world pops out when this data is used.

A 2014 view of the Earth's sea floor using data from the European Space Agency's CryoSat mission and the CNES-NASA Jason-1 satellite. Credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography
A 2014 view of the Earth’s sea floor using data from the European Space Agency’s CryoSat mission and the CNES-NASA Jason-1 satellite. Credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography

“The effect of the slight increase in gravity caused by the mass of rock in an undersea mountain is to attract a mound of water several meters high over the seamount. Deep ocean trenches have the reverse effect,” ESA wrote in a statement.  “These features can only be detected by using radar altimetry from space.”

Some of the new findings include finding new bridges between Africa and South America and uncovering seafloor spreading that happened in the Gulf of Mexico 150 million years ago. Results based on the study, led by Scripps’ David Sandwell, recently appeared in the journal Science.

Long-time readers of Universe Today may also recall a gravity map from ESA’s Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE), which revealed Earth’s gravity as a lumpy potato shape in 2011.

Source: European Space Agency