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Recovery and discovery

TitleRecovery and discovery
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2014
JournalNature GeosciNature GeosciNature
Type of Articleeditorial
KeywordsMH 370, GEBCO, seafloor mapping, multibeam bathymetry, Smith, Sandwell, Marks

The recent disappearance of a commercial airliner has highlighted our poor knowledge of the ocean
floor. Through the years, human tragedies have helped inspire deep sea research, but it is time to explore
more systematically.

On 8 March 2014, a commercial airliner
carrying 239 people disappeared almost
without a trace. The path of flight
MH370, which fell off military radar a
few hours after take-off, was painstakingly
reconstructed from a few bits of data
gleaned from a telecommunications
satellite. The analysis suggested the plane
made an abrupt turn away from its original
destination of Beijing, instead heading
south over the Indian Ocean. Guided by
the satellite data and sightings of possible
airplane debris, search teams narrowed in
on an area of the Indian Ocean west of the
Australian coast. But as the teams began
their — ultimately fruitless — search of
this patch of the ocean floor, they hit a
snag: the topography of the sea floor in this
region was virtually unknown. This piece
of uncharted territory is not exceptional:
broad swathes of the ocean floor are yet to
be fully explored.

Mapping of the sea floor is not just
an exercise in disaster recovery. Much of
the ocean’s internal mixing is attributed
to rough topography at the sea floor;
this sort of mixing is a key way in which
wind and tidal energy is dissipated
throughout the ocean (Nikurashin, M.,
Vallis, G. K. & Adcroft, A. Nature Geosci.
6, 48–51; 2013). Poor knowledge of how
energy is transformed in the world’s oceans
hinders forecasts of everything from the
path of tsunamis to the ocean’s uptake of
heat and carbon dioxide (Smith, W. H. F. &
Marks, K. M. Eos 95, 173–174; 2014).

Short TitleNature Geoscience
Alternate JournalNature Geoscience