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To protect the oceans, we must map them (commentary)

  • About 80% of our oceans remain “unmapped, unobserved, and unexplored,” according to NOAA.
  • Technologies like un-crewed marine drones, high-resolution satellites, and remote operating vehicles are now being paired with modern digital mapping techniques to reveal critical new insights about the oceans.
  • “Considering we’ve barely mapped a quarter of [the oceans] so far, imagine what we could know, what we could prepare for, if every inch was mapped,” a new op-ed suggests.
  • This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

How had we missed this until now? An undersea mountain as tall as three Eiffel Towers. DDT contamination spread across an area of the seabed as large as San Francisco. Tens of thousands of undersea volcanoes. All hidden beneath the surface.

For decades, my impassioned ocean science colleagues and I have spoken out about the need to “save our ocean.” But to save it, we first have to understand it.

About 80% of our ocean remains “unmapped, unobserved, and unexplored,” according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And that’s despite scientists, including myself, who have spent their lives studying and even diving to its unexplored depths.

Part of Esri's marine mapping efforts includes ecological marine units (EMU), a comprehensive, standardized analysis layer of the physical, chemical, and biological properties of the ocean. Image courtesy of Esri.
One of Esri’s marine mapping efforts visualizes ecological marine units (EMU), a comprehensive, standardized analysis layer of the physical, chemical, and biological properties of the oceans. Image courtesy of Esri.

Now, we have the right technology to understand — and save — our ocean.

Un-crewed, solar-powered marine drones explore with a wide range of sensors. High-resolution satellites and aircraft collect imagery. Remote operating vehicles can go deeper and further while recording data from the environment below. When paired with modern digital mapping, this new information reveals critical insights. There are even plans to build the Proteus research facility, akin to the space station, underwater off a Caribbean coast where researchers will live and work. The timing couldn’t be better as there is growing global urgency to do more to protect our ocean.

All the excess heat our human activity is creating? The ocean absorbs much of it.

The oxygen we need? The ocean creates half of it, regardless of where on land we live.

Dawn Wright, image courtesy of Esri.
Dawn Wright, image courtesy of Esri.

After nearly 20 years of negotiations, we finally have a High Seas Treaty, achieved this year at the United Nations. This legal framework, once fully ratified, will go a long way toward protecting international waters. It was the talk of the annual Our Ocean Conference in Panama where 600 of us representing 190 countries committed to taking action.

The United States promised to spend a total of $6 billion. That figure includes $11 million for establishing and managing marine protected areas such as the new Hudson Canyon National Marine Sanctuary off the coasts of New York and New Jersey, home to sperm whales, sea turtles, and corals.

Setting aside areas of the ocean to be preserved starts with choosing the right locations. These are the spots that will offer the best chance for a diversity of species, of fish and seagrasses to flourish. Finding those areas requires filling critical data gaps of understanding.

Esri, where I work to advance science through geography and technology, is expanding a mapping application originally designed for National Geographic’s Pristine Seas program. The web-based tool will help world leaders as they identify more waters that should be protected, such as the proposed Chumash Heritage and Mariana Trench National Marine sanctuaries.

View a recent, wide-ranging interview with Dawn Wright here.

Global map of the oceans including elevation. Image courtesy of Esri.
Global map that visualizes marine elevations. Image courtesy of Esri.

As the ocean absorbs harmful emissions humans are sending into the atmosphere, it’s also getting hotter. The trajectories of that hot water are partly based on the topography of the ocean floor, stirring up hurricanes and storms. Considering we’ve barely mapped a quarter of that topography so far, imagine what we could know, what we could prepare for, if every inch was mapped.

That’s why it’s such a thrill when each new undersea mountain or volcano is discovered and earns a headline. We are learning so much more about this place that influences every one of our lives, whether we know it or not, or live near the shore, or inland.

So many of us have rightfully gazed up at the mysteries far above our heads, searching the solar system for more life and reasons for how we came to be, cheering the technological advances that go up, up, up. We need to also glance down and do more wondering at the water below.

New innovations are affording us a better view of those vast waters. Shifting our gaze does more than save the ocean. It saves us.


Dawn Wright is the chief scientist of the digital mapping technology company Esri, a professor of geography and oceanography at Oregon State University and a member of both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. She is one of few individuals — and the first Black person — to visit Challenger Deep, the deepest known point of the ocean.

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: On March 4, U.N. member states reached a landmark agreement on a legally binding treaty aimed at protecting the international waters of Earth’s oceans. Listen to what it aims to do here:

Related reading:

Esri co-founder Jack Dangermond: ‘People and planet are inextricably linked’

Seafloor life abounds around hydrothermal vents hot enough to melt lead


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