Thoughtful Thursday: Ignoring the Unknown

Published May 29, 2014

The moon might seem like a mysterious, distant speck in the night sky, but, truth is, we know more about its backside than we do about four-fifths of our own planet.

Did you know? We have maps detailing every mountain and crater on the moon’s surface, but only 5 percent of our ocean has been mapped in high resolution. The rest has been captured in low-resolution maps that offer limited detail, often omitting volcanic craters, underwater channels and shipwrecks.

Unsurprisingly, most of the seafloor we’ve been able to thoroughly map is close to shore and along common commercial shipping routes. And if you think “close to shore” at least incorporates America’s exclusive economic zone—the underwater territory spanning 200 miles off our coastlines—think again. We have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of our nation’s own EEZ.

So why don’t we have more high-res maps of our blue planet? Well, considering the average ocean depth is approximately 2.2 miles, or 12,000 feet, it’s a massive project to take on. We’re talking about more than 200 years of collecting data via ships, plus billions of U.S. dollars.

That said, these maps are invaluable tools for understanding everything from the condition and extent of seafloor habitats to how tsunamis spread around the world.

Additionally, those detailed images could also be used by organizations as visual tools to help change the way humanity views and cares for the ocean. Think about it: You’re unlikely to care about something you can’t see and know very little about. Because the ocean is largely unknown, unseen and inaccessible, conservation efforts are often challenged by a sense of futility, apathy and even alienation. Seeing what lies beneath the water’s surface could help inspire the world to protect it.

To view the areas that have been mapped, check out Google Earth. Its 3-D maps—based on 20 years of data from almost 500 ship cruises and 12 different institutions—allow you to virtually explore some of the world’s underwater terrain.

Another great resource is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website, which offers sea floor maps of the world’s coasts, continental shelves and deep ocean.

There’s no denying that exploring and charting the vast ocean and seafloor is a difficult and costly endeavor; but considering it provides us with about half the oxygen we breathe, our main source of protein and a plethora of mineral resources, among other things we rely on daily, it may be a challenge worth tackling.

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