Filling in the gaps in the offshore map: Seabed 2030

If you have ever used online maps to scroll around the world and see foreign places from a new angle, chances are you will have seen straight lines spanning the world’s oceans like cracks in the shell of the earth. Matt Farmer finds out how, in reality, the endless blue of the seas is a vast void where no maps are available and the cracks represent what little we know about the world’s oceans.

"We have 361.9 million square kilometres of ocean covering 70% of our earth, and to date, we've only adequately mapped 19% of that”, says Jamie McMichael-Phillips, project director of the Nippon Foundation - GEBCO Seabed 2030 Project. He leads the coordination of a worldwide effort to create reliable, publicly accessible offshore maps. 

Starting in 2017, the project allows anyone access to information on the ocean depths, known as bathymetry data. Offshore developers require data like this in the early stages of planning for hydrocarbon extraction, subsea infrastructure, or offshore power generation.

On a larger scale, the UN believes that filling in the last details of the world map will herald a new wave of offshore industry, known as the “blue economy”.

The UN’s vision of a blue economy in 2030

The Seabed 2030 project forms part of the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. This is in turn part of the UN’s effort to develop a blue economy based on sustainable ocean industry.

Some sections of this, such as wide-scale aquaculture or seabed mining, seem far off. More tangibly, this vision would involve environmentally-conscious oil and gas extraction as well as offshore wind development.

In a UN report, officials write that private industry would be the “main contributor to and a beneficiary of the sustainable blue economy”. As a whole, offshore industries and those they support would earn revenues of $2.5tn per year, according to the UN. This all starts with having modern mapping of ocean floors.

McMichael-Phillips says: “The Seabed 2030 is merely a contributor to that blue economy, not a driver of it. But by 2030 we will provide a base-level map that others may wish to use to focus more closely on specific areas of the world.”

The Seabed 2030 is merely a contributor to that blue economy, not a driver of it.

Private companies can use the maps to get a basic understanding of the layout of oceans, allowing them to make better-informed investment decisions before employing geodata companies. The map also opens up the possibility of governments leasing areas that were previously thought to be unusable for offshore developers.

GEBCO guiding committee member David Millar tells us that the 2030 target set by the UN could kickstart innovation in the near-term. He says: “I think the increased focus on the value of the ocean, and the importance of improving our understanding of the oceans, will increase investment in ocean science. 

“This then creates a market environment that will drive innovation, which will drive entrepreneurs to be the first to market with the latest and greatest solutions, so that they are best-positioned to support these blue economy developments and opportunities.”

How Seabed 2030 has already driven advances in the offshore economy

Marine geodata company Fugro has already made significant contributions to the project. Millar works as the company’s Americas government accounts director and says that although much of Fugro’s business relies on selling marine data, he believes that Seabed 2030 will enhance their business and industry.

He says: “I would say there's a very tight connection between Seabed 2030 and Fugro’s innovation. When we first committed to supporting the project through bathymetric contributions from our vessels moving from project to project, we wanted to do it in an impactful way that minimised our investment.

“That meant leveraging our office-assisted remote services technology as a starting point. That technology has evolved and we're constantly trying to come up with technologies that will make for more efficient, cost effective, and sustainable ocean mapping.

"So now, four years after we began this process, we're capable of doing systematic high-quality mapping without surveyors onboard, not just for the in-transit logging.”

Four years after we began this process, we're capable of doing systematic high-quality mapping without surveyors onboard.

Of the nine Fugro vessels involved in the project, four now operate “completely autonomously”. The remote operations advancements also played a part in the move to remote operations with the onset of Covid-19.

Millar says: “Thankfully, we had this technology before. The office-assisted remote services system has existed for almost seven years, but it has constantly improved. When Covid took effect, we accelerated some of our remote operations developments.

“We had the goal of trying to minimise the number of people that had to get on and off vessels, and to minimise the need for health testing. Our goal really was if a position on board the vessel was in front of a computer, then that position could be done from shore. That meant that we didn't have to deal with a lot of the Covid-related headaches.”

All those models are based on only 19% of the seabed, with the rest based on predictive values.

Subsea surveyors PGS have also contributed to the project, as well as mapping and analytics company Esri and offshore software developers QPS. The organisation also works with ocean research not-for-profit companies, such as Schmidt Ocean Institute and REV Ocean, which was founded by Aker ASA’s owner.

Beyond private ventures, the maps would also massively contribute to ocean science. Water depths help decide ocean currents, which affect shipping, weather, and climate change.

Bathymetry data can help governments better predict subsea geology, and better train tsunami warning systems. Some governments hold large subsea maps, but could stand to gain from Seabed 2030. 

McMichael-Phillips says: “If you're running a tsunami modelling and prediction service, then you need to know the shape of the seedbed. All those models are based on only 19% of the seabed, with the rest based on predictive values. We need to do better.”

Giving the world a basic understanding of seabeds and seismic changes

The project would collect depth data with a relatively large resolution. This would allow users to identify areas of interest, for offshore development as well as scientific purposes.

McMichael-Phillips gives an example: “Around the end of last year, the Schmidt Ocean Institute discovered a huge seamount off the coast of Australia that nobody ever spotted before. It’s that sort of discovery that is undoubtedly still out there.”

While this map would still be somewhat “blurry”, it would mean a significant step up from a lot of the available imagery. Millar explains: “Much of the data that exists for the world's oceans has been derived from satellite altimetry, which is very low resolution and relatively low accuracy. The ambitions of Seabed 2030 are to produce much higher resolutions that range in size.

“These can be from 100m to 800m grid size, depending on the water depth. This will provide tremendous information in terms of regional understanding, but it's still nowhere near the resolution required by our customers, who are typically involved in the design, engineering, and construction of infrastructure in the ocean and on the seafloor.”

In large parts of the ocean, the seabed is stable, so that data will endure for many years.

“For those applications, much, much higher resolution is required; it's almost a factor of 10 difference in that resolution, or more.”

McMichael-Phillips continues: “I can remember surveying areas around the UK using modern technology and the base map that we had was based on surveys from the 1800s that were gathered using lead line technologies. Surprisingly in the 190-or-so years between, very little changed. In large parts of the ocean, the seabed is stable, so that data will endure for many years.

“Clearly in areas where there is much more mobility of seabed or likelihood of very active subsea geological hazards, the bathymetry is going to change, but that shouldn't stop us gathering it because we need to know what's there today, so we can measure what's changed in the future.”

Most seabed remains relatively stable. Around coastlines, river deltas can deposit clouds of sediment that changes the subsea layout and makes satellite observation more difficult. Hurricanes, typhoons, and tornadoes can also disturb shallow waters so McMichael-Phillips says that even after 2030, the project will not be finished.

Citizen science and corporate giving – the contributors

McMichael-Phillips is keen to encourage any owner or operator of a boat to contribute, from oil and gas majors to pleasure sailors. 

“As long as they've got a positioning system and an echo-sounder, they can contribute. It can be small fishing vessels, it could be a passenger ferry transiting between two ports.

“We've got some trials that are taking place where we're working with colleagues in South Africa, in Palau, and in Greenland to roll out a batch of these loggers. They're relatively inexpensive technology that will download to removable memory. 

“Just asking people to switch on the systems: it doesn't interfere with day-to-day business and we can send somebody down to the vessel when it gets into port, upload the data, clear the memory stick off, and they're good to go again.”

Oil and gas companies themselves hold significant amounts of bathymetric data from mapping ocean floors for exploration. 

As long as they've got a positioning system and an echo-sounder, they can contribute.

McMichael-Phillips says: “Even if you've only got a small area of data to give us, that is hugely important because it's one part of the globe that we have yet to survey.

“My message to all those reading this is please, please look at what you can gather for us, and what you can release to us. There are a number of ways of doing that, such as gathering data on transit between client jobs. Please switch on the echo-sounder and consider supplying that data to us.

“Also when you're working with clients, perhaps look at how you can work with those clients to release some relatively coarse resolution data to us, or consider releasing the high resolution at the end of an embargo period, because what we want to avoid is surveying the same patch of ocean more than once. 

“‘Gather once, use many times’ is the principle, and if we can encourage clients, governments, academics, and commercial organisations to release data to us that they've already gathered, then that will be a huge benefit because we know some of that data exists. It doesn't make sense if somebody has already got data that we can use to have to mobilise a unit to go back out there and gather data in that same patch of ocean.”