How Ordinary Ship Traffic Could Help Map The Uncharted Arctic Ocean Seafloor

2019-08-22T16:39:22+00:00 November 15, 2018|

Equipping every ship that enters the Arctic with sensors could help fill critical gaps in maritime charts

(From Arctic Today/By Melody Schreiber)

Throughout world, the ocean floor’s details remain largely a mystery; less than 10 percent has been mapped using modern sonar technology. Even in the United States, which has some of the best maritime maps in the world, only one-third of the ocean and coastal waters have been mapped to modern standards.

But perhaps the starkest gaps in knowledge are in the Arctic. Only 4.7 percent of the Arctic has been mapped to modern standards.

“Especially when you get up north, the percentage of charts that are basically based on Royal Navy surveys from the 19th century is terrifying — or should be terrifying,” said David Titley, a retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral who directs the Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk at the Pennsylvania State University. Titley spoke alongside several other maritime experts at a recent Woodrow Wilson Center event on marine policy, highlighting the need for improved oceanic maps.

When he was on active duty in the Navy, Titley said, “we were finding sea mounts that we had no idea were there. And conversely, we were getting rid of sea mounts on charts that weren’t there.”


“It’s hard to map the bottom of the ocean,” said Rear Admiral Jon White, president and CEO of the Consortium for Ocean Leadership. “It’s like trying to map your backyard with ants, with the ships that we have.”

However, he said, the technology to do so is improving.

“There are great opportunities for the people who understand this technology, to make new ways, better ways to actually map it faster,” White said.

Moving forward, he said, both federal investment and public-private partnerships should focus on “getting every ship to be a sensor in the ocean.”

That effort will be crucial for accomplishing “all the things that we’re trying to do in the maritime environment,” he said.

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