TORONTO -- A group of scientists has successfully mapped one-fifth of the world’s ocean floor, a significant milestone for the team on its mission to measure every depth and recess of the planet's seabed by the end of the decade.​ 

With about 71 per cent of our planet’s surface covered in ocean water, the task is monumental. But creating a complete map of the ocean is crucial “in order to protect the oceans and sustain ocean life,” said Jamie McMichael-Phillips, the Seabed 2030 Project Director, in a recently released promotional video for the project.

When The Nippon Foundation-GEBCO Seabed 2030 Project was launched in 2017, just six per cent of the ocean floor had been mapped, according to the group. The newly collected data means the team has now successfully mapped 19 per cent of the seabed, up from 15 per cent last year. 

The project’s end goal is to gather all available bathymetric data and create a definitive, high-resolution map of the world’s entire ocean floor and make it freely accessible by 2030. Bathymetry is the study and measurement of the depth of water in oceans, seas or lakes. 

The global project is a collaboration between the Tokyo-based non-profit Nippon Foundation and the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO), an international group of experts in oceanography that develops and makes bathymetric data sets and ocean terrain maps available and accessible for free. 


To collect and measure the data, the Seabed 2030 team uses sound waves, an acoustic method it says has been widely used by oceanographers and scientists to map ocean floors over the last century. 

Using ships on the water’s surface and sophisticated autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), the team sends sonar pulses down below the surface and listens for that sound to echo back from the seabed. They then determine depth by dividing the speed of sound (around 1,500 metres per second) by half of the time it takes for the echo to be recorded, according to the project’s website.

Seabed 2030 researchers are using a comprehensive method of depth measurement called multibeam bathymetric mapping, which allows them to transmit large swaths of sound down to the seabed, sometimes up to 10 kilometres wide in deep waters.

The latest GEBCO grid includes 14.5 million square kilometres of new data. To put that number into perspective, the new seafloor data covers an area roughly twice the size of Australia. Specialized computer software is helping researchers turn their data sets into 3D terrain models.


Seabed 2030 may have ambitious goals, but the team isn’t doing the work alone. So far, 133 international organizations, partners and contributors from across industry, governments, philanthropy and academia have officially signed on to support the mapping project. 

The project is crowdsourcing its data collection, asking commercial operators and research institutes from around the world to cooperate and share their sonar data so they can speed up the mapping process.

The group believes its work is facilitating a better understanding of the many processes related to climate change, such as ocean circulation, sea level rise, weather systems, tsunami wave propagation, tides and sediment transport. Ultimately, the fundamental concept is that having a clear grasp of the Earth’s oceans will help to better conserve and sustainably develop them.

McMichael-Phillips says he anticipates that, as technical innovation moves forward, so too, will the availability of new data on a yearly basis. 

“It’s encouraging to see what working collaboratively, across the globe, can achieve,” he said. “Everyone has a part to play in the contributing to our ocean mapping journey: a journey that will greatly benefit humanity."