The Ethics of Seafloor Mapping: Will it Make or Break our Environment?
The history of mapping the ocean can be traced back 3,000 years when evidence of water depth measurements was first found in Egypt. Modern sound-based seafloor mapping was invented in the 1910s, a product of World War I. As technology has developed, seafloor maps have become advanced enough to help scientists decipher much of the world’s mysteries, such as the formation of deep-sea trenches and underwater ridges in the 1960s, and plate tectonics in the 1970s. More recently, seafloor mapping has been utilized to find more metal and mineral-rich locations for deep sea mining. While it is true that seafloor mapping has many benefits for the environment and sustainable uses, it is vital to ensure that the ocean’s marine life and ecosystems are not destroyed in the process, and the information gathered is not used for damaging purposes.
Firstly, seafloor mapping is essential to scientific discovery in that it helps us to gain a better understanding of the planet's oceans and their marine-ecosystems. Understanding our impact on the environment, especially with climate change endangering not only the oceans and their creatures but the rest of the world is crucial. Today, seafloor mapping technologies have advanced enough to detect the surrounding “wave action, schools of fish, and changes in coral reefs that can indicate marine oxygen levels.” Using this information, scientists are able to better plan marine conservation and protect environments. (Wright, 2022) The ocean is vital in the fight against climate change, as it sequestered large amounts of carbon emissions that would otherwise stay in the atmosphere. If the ocean is not in a equilibrium, its carbon absorption ability will be reduced. Mapping the ocean allows for increased knowledge of how human activity affects the sea and its inhabitants. Then, scientists can measure the changes climate change causes to the ecosystem. Full ocean mapping also assists scientists to predict how natural disasters “travel and intensify as they cross the ocean,” which gives more time for authorities to evacuate populated areas and help towns and cities stay safe. (Wright, 2022) Furthermore, accurate seafloor mapping can increase the “ability of climate models to simulate global phenomena such as El Niño events.” (Wölfl et al., 0001)
Beyond identifying climate and environmental issues, seafloor mapping provides opportunities for the utilization and development of renewable energy and clean technology. As the world grows more aware of the detriments of carbon emissions and greenhouse gases, renewable energy has grown in demand and popularity. Technology such as coastal sensors and autonomous vehicles are powered by hydropower/hydraulic energy, which requires obtaining ocean data and information to build and function properly. (Weller et al., 0001) Without seafloor and ocean mapping, the battle against our rapidly changing climate would be drastically more challenging. Mapping the ocean not only identifies the issues and the development of new ones—but also provides the knowledge we need to solve them.
However, as beneficial as the information collected from seafloor mapping can be for protecting marine life and formulating climate solutions, it can also be just as harmful and damaging. Two leading seafloor mapping technologies, sonar and seismic surveys, can cause significant harm
and even kill sea animals. Both sonar and seismic surveys operate by using sound/air to bounce off the seafloor and map out the terrain in the ocean. These types of mapping require deafeningly loud sounds, causing “gradual or even outright death of sea creatures.” (Robbins, 2019) Ocean noise pollution can affect all marine life no matter the size, ranging from the smallest of plankton to the largest of whales. Even if these creatures survive, many are left with long-lasting — if not permanent — damage to their hearing and brain function. These effects can prove to be easily fatal, as many marine animals — especially those in the deep sea — rely heavily on their hearing to navigate, communicate, and detect predators.
In 2017, a study tested the possible damage caused by ocean noise pollution, by blasting a loud noise into the ocean. The blast was quieter than seismic blasts, but still managed to kill almost “two-thirds of the zooplankton in three-quarters of a mile on either side.” While they may seem trivial, the loss of zooplankton could severely affect animals higher up in the food chain, causing harmful population disparities in the species inhabiting the area affected. Researchers have also studied the noise-sensitive beaked whales and learned that “in frantic efforts to escape seismic air guns or navy sonar,” the whales are forced to change their diving patterns and become at risk of decompression sickness and death. (Robbins, 2019)
Seafloor mapping also poses a major issue to ocean habitats due to its contribution to the deep sea drilling and mining industry. As much as deep sea drilling benefits the economy and general society, it is heavily detrimental marine life and their ecosystems. Although mapping the ocean doesn’t directly cause deep sea mining, these industries profit from the information provided by seafloor mapping technology — using the results to determine the most profitable locations to mine for sought-after metals and minerals. Likewise to sonar and seismic surveys, deep sea mining also generates a dangerous level of ocean noise. Noise from deep sea mining can be heard in a large area underwater, as it can travel “horizontally and vertically through the ocean,” which can affect marine life from “the sea surface throughout the water column down to the seafloor.” (Alberts, 2021) Ironically, the best solution to limit the destruction of ocean habitats produced by deep sea mining is to increase ocean observation and mapping. With more research comes more knowledge on how to best extract the resources needed from the ocean floor whilst limiting the damage and disruption to the surrounding environment.
Luckily, in this day and age, there are many people developing environmentally friendly solutions and technologies to address the problems posed by seafloor mapping and its ties to other industries. For example, seismic surveys can be replaced by underwater vibrators that produce “smaller sound footprint and a lower peak pressure,” reducing the potential for harm risk to marine life, while simultaneously lowering ocean noise pollution. (Jones, 2019) Companies around the world are developing new technologies by the day, many of which will hopefully replace the current methods used to map the seafloor, allowing ocean research to continue doing good whilst without the harmful downsides. Ultimately, seafloor mapping has many benefits for the oceans and is crucial in keeping the environment we share with other animals habitable. Additionally, mapping provides us with the accumulation of scientific research vital to reducing our harmful impacts. However, careful regulation, observation, and re-assessment is necessary to ensure that ocean mapping causes more good than harm.
1. Seafloor mapping. NOAA Ocean Explorer Podcast RSS. (n.d.). Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/explorations/02fire/background/seafloor_mapping/seafloor.html#:~:text=A%20History%20of%20Seafloor%20Mapping,to%20map%20deep%20water%20areas
2. Robbins, J. (2019, January 22). Oceans are getting louder, posing potential threats to marine life. The New York Times. Retrieved July 22, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/22/science/oceans-whales-noise-offshore-drilling.html
3. Wright, D. (2022, January 16). To save Earth's climate, map the oceans: ArcNews: Winter 2022. Esri. Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://www.esri.com/about/newsroom/arcnews/to-save-earths-climate-map-the-oceans/
4. Wölfl, A.-C., Snaith, H., Amirebrahimi, S., Devey, C. W., Dorschel, B., Ferrini, V., Huvenne, V. A. I., Jakobsson, M., Jencks, J., Johnston, G., Lamarche, G., Mayer, L., Millar, D., Pedersen, T. H., Picard, K., Reitz, A., Schmitt, T., Visbeck, M., Weatherall, P., & Wigley, R. (1AD, January 1). Seafloor mapping – the challenge of a truly global ocean bathymetry. Frontiers. Retrieved July 20, 2022, from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmars.2019.00283/full
5. Alberts, E. C., (2021, November 24) If marine noise pollution is bad, deep-sea mining could add to the Cacophony. Mongabay Environmental News. Retrieved July 20, 2022, from https://news.mongabay.com/2021/11/if-marine-noise-pollution-is-bad-deep-sea-mining-could-add-to-the-cacophony/#:~:text=Besides%20noise%20pollution%2C%20studies%20suggest,migratory%20species%20and%20key%20fisheries
6. Weller, R. A., Baker, D. J., Glackin, M. M., Roberts, S. J., Schmitt, R. W., Twigg, E. S., & Vimont, D. J. (1AD, January 1). The challenge of Sustaining Ocean Observations. Frontiers. Retrieved July 20, 2021, from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmars.2019.00105/full
7. Jones, N. (2019, April 10). Ocean uproar: Saving marine life from a barrage of noise. Nature News. Retrieved July 21, 2022, from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01098-6