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Importance of Ocean Floor Raised by Seabed 2030

Earth’s ocean floors remain among the most poorly understood areas on the planet. Seabed 2030 was formed in response to increased interest from the United Nations and the global community in maritime systems. Through research and technology, the project is intent on producing a complete map of the seabed.

Ocean Focus in United Nations Policy

Logo of GEBCO. Credited to seabed2030.org.

The United Nations held its Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012 and created the Sustainable Development Goals. Among these was Goal 14: “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.” Noting the oceans’ importance for a healthy and prosperous humanity, the UN promoted projects aimed at addressing potential dangers.

Subsequently, the United Nations declared 2021 to 2030 a “Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development”, directed at improving human understanding of the oceans. The First World Ocean Assessment, finalized in 2016, had previously noted a negative trend in the oceans’ systems. The UN expects these trends to worsen as the global human population continues to increase toward 2050. This reality requires institutions to adapt and improve their understanding.

“Scientific understanding of the ocean’s responses to pressures and management action is fundamental for sustainable development,” UNESCO argues. “Ocean observations and research are also essential to predict the consequences of change, design mitigation and guide adaptation.”

UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission was given authority by the UN General Assembly to oversee this program. This organization would direct the beginnings of coordinated scientific research and technological development to improve Earth’s oceans.

The UN has seven “Ocean Decade Outcomes” set as goals. Firstly, they will promote a clean, healthy, and resilient ocean. Moreover, the UN advocates for “sustainable” production of food and economic activity. In addition, it calls for a “society [that] understands and can respond to changing ocean conditions.” After that, the mission is directed toward ensuring humans are prepared for the hazards natural to oceans. Also, the UN seeks to ensure that data and technology is available for all. Lastly, the organization intends to promote maritime values that will foster sustainable human activity.

Seabed 2030’s Vision of Mapping the Ocean Floor

Seabed 2030 Image. Credited to seabed2030.org.

Seabed 2030 was created in part in response to these UN policies. The project’s aim is to map out the sea floor.

“For all of humanity’s scientific achievements, we have yet to have a complete map- and, therefore, a complete understanding- of our own planet,” the project’s website declares.

“There are many benefits to having a complete map of our ocean,” the project continues. “Knowing the seafloor’s shape is fundamental for understanding ocean circulation and climate models, resource management, tsunami forecasting and public safety, sediment transportation, environmental change, cable and pipeline routing, and much more.”

The Seabed 2030 website further details how, despite representing 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, only six percent of the seabed had been mapped as of 2016.

The project began in 2017 as a joint effort between The Nippon Foundation and General Bathymetric Chart of the Ocean or GEBCO. The Nippon Foundation is a private philanthropic organization which began in 1962 as the Japan Shipbuilding Industry Foundation. The organization has long been involved in maritime issues with an eye toward improving understanding and use of the oceans. This interest has expanded beyond commercial concerns to address broader issues.

The General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans is a non-profit organization. It is intended “to provide the most authoritative publicly-available bathymetry of the world’s oceans.” The United States’ National Ocean Service describes bathymetry as mapping the terrain of the ocean floor in terms of its depth and shape. GEBCO answers to both the International Hydrographic Organization and the International Oceanographic Commission, mentioned above.

Since the announcement of Seabed 2030, progress has been made. 24.9 percent of the sea floor has been mapped as of 2023. The project has secured approximately 90 million square kilometers of data.

Plans of Seabed 2030

An image of the ocean floor. Credited to Pauline Weatherall and GEBCO.

The Nippon Foundation planned a budget of $18.5 million for Seabed 2030 in 2016. The project’s team first met in October 2017.

Prior to Seabed 2030, the most recent bathymetric chart from GEBCO was produced in 2014. This is a digital chart relying on single-beam and multi-beam sonars, coupled with satellite altimetry data. However, the latter in particular does not give an accurate sense of the depth or shape of the sea floor. The most reliable is the multi-beam sonar data from ships. This data covers approximately 9 percent of the oceans, though even less than that was properly measured.

Seabed 2030 has come to rely upon multi-beam sonar data via ships. The project acknowledged that creating this sea floor map with ships “is a costly and time-consuming endeavor of global extent” in scope. It requires global cooperation to carry out. It would take approximately 970 years for a single survey ship to survey all of the ocean floor. However, around 620 years’ worth of the area is no more than 200 meters deep, where the sonar cannot measure as broad an area.

This means “64% of the projected survey time is required to cover only 7% of the world’s seafloor” in total. As these shallow areas tend to be in the possession of sovereign states, Seabed 2030 has decided to leave them to those authorities. It instead focuses on the other 93% of the sea floor. This represents about 350 years for a single ship. There were more than 700 vessels equipped with multi-beam sonars in service around the world as of 2003, a fact which allows the project to disperse the responsibility.

Implementation of Seabed 2030

The project team collects and employs existing bathymetric data, using it to determine priority areas to be surveyed for a more accurate grid. In this sense it is a coordinating body working in conjunction with other organizations. Its connection with the United Nations through GEBCO provides it with a pre-existing global support structure.

There are four regional centers for Seabed 2030, each of which is building a regional bathymetric grid. These regions are the North Pacific and Artic Oceans, the South and West Pacific Oceans, the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and the Southern Ocean respectively. These regional grids will be merged into the global grid by another center in the United Kingdom.

It is expected that technology for mapping the sea floor will continue to improve. The multi-beam sonar has become more effective in recent years due to increasing the number of beams sounding the seabed. They are also better able to account for the ship’s motion and collect better data.

Seabed 2030 will actively seek technological development out of an interest in increasing the “efficiency and coverage” of its project. Autonomous vehicles, particularly barges capable of long transits, are being considered. Being able to conduct constant operations with minimal manpower would greatly benefit a project which will require many hours of surveying vast areas of the ocean.

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