Why the First Complete Map of the Ocean Floor is Stirring Controversial Waters

Charting these watery depths could transform oceanography. It could also aid deep sea miners looking for profit

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map of the ocean floor
A scuba diver swims in the coral reefs of Palau. Beneath the depths that humans can dive, natural wonder and a better understanding of our planet awaits. (Carlos Villoch / Alamy)
KYLE FRISCHKORN on SMITHSONIAN.COM | 13 July 2017

“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.”

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