Changing Planet

High-Tech Mapping Sheds New Light on the Atlantic Seafloor

As the sun goes down over the surface of the Atlantic, a new era dawns thousands of feet below. (Photo Courtesy Tommy Furey)

The ancient Irish may have done it. The Vikings certainly did. And when Columbus made the trip, it ushered in one of the most dramatic periods of change in human history. In 1857, the first transatlantic communication cable had a similar effect.

Now, outfitted with the latest in survey and mapping technology, a team of researchers is making that daunting voyage: crossing the Atlantic by ship. They’re on a reconnaissance mission for the 2016 Seabed Survey Pilot Project, which will create the most detailed map yet of the bottom of the great, cold, and decidedly not “pacific” Atlantic Ocean.

What We Don’t Know

The Transatlantic Ocean Research Alliance between Canada, the European Union, and the United States was set up in 2013 in part to better understand the nature of this section of the world’s ocean and the living systems that make it their home. While important for purely scientific reasons, this information will also help guide the most sustainable use and development of the vast resources in this area.

Gollum Channel Complex Porcupine Seabight – Multibeam data
The scientific team poses onboard as lines cast off in St. Johns. Left to right: Fabio Sacchetti-MI Ireland, Marcos Rosa-IPMA Portugal, Tommy Furey-MI Ireland, Derek Sowers-NOAA USA, Kirk Regular, MI Newfoundland, Slava Sobolev-MI Ireland. (Photo Courtesy Tommy Furey)

There have been maps of the ocean floor before, notably those created by Marie Tharp, and people may have a general image of the bottom of the Atlantic: about midway between the eastern and western continents, there is the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a massive mountain range caused by the great tectonic plates ripping apart.

This amount of information is about as detailed as saying that North America consists of a vast flat area disrupted in the west by the Rocky Mountains. It’s certainly correct, but it misses incredible amounts of detail about the land. The ocean floor is no less varied and dynamic.

The Tools to Learn More

Modern technology that uses both acoustic and gravitational feedback can reveal not only mountain ranges, but coral patches, sea grass beds, and vents like those discovered by NG Explorer-in-Residence Dr. Robert Ballard that revealed the existence of chemo-synthetic life that exists without any access to sunlight. While much of this technology has been in use for decades, refinements over the past two years have dramatically increased their accuracy and detail.

The Route

Currently, the Irish national R.V. Celtic Explorer is making the Atlantic Transect with a team of scientists from Canada, the U.S., and E.U. lead by Tommy Furey of Ireland’s INFOMAR.

Starting in St. Johns, Newfoundland and headed clear across to Galway, Ireland, they will survey the Atlantic seafloor using a newly commissioned state of the art deep water multibeam mapping system. This will lay the foundation for next year’s major expedition, and comes at the midpoint of Ireland’s ambitious 20-year seabed mapping program.

The Gollum Channel Complex Porcupine Seabight is revealed in new detail via multibeam data. (Image Courtesy Tommy Furey)


The Potential

When the journey is complete, the team will have revealed a broad swath of the ocean floor in astonishing new detail. Geologists, biologists, fisheries and other resource managers will be better armed to make smarter decisions about all of their actions and planning for the future.

You, too, will get to share in this new vision of the Atlantic seafloor, as we share imagery and interpretation directly from the team, helping to reveal the undersea world, which famously we still know less about than we do the surface of the moon.

Learn More About the Transatlantic Ocean Research Alliance




Andrew Howley is a longtime contributor to the National Geographic blog, with a particular focus on archaeology and paleoanthropology generally, and ancient rock art in particular. In 2018 he became Communications Director at Adventure Scientists, founded by Nat Geo Explorer Gregg Treinish. Over 11 years at the National Geographic Society, Andrew worked in various ways to share the stories of NG explorers and grantees online. He also produced the Home Page of for several years, and helped manage the Society's Facebook page during its breakout year of 2010. He studied Anthropology with a focus on Archaeology from the College of William & Mary in Virginia. He has covered expeditions with NG Explorers-in-Residence Mike Fay, Enric Sala, and Lee Berger. His personal interests include painting, running, and reading about history. You can follow him on Twitter @anderhowl and on Instagram @andrewjhowley.
  • Allan Green

    For someone like me researching early submarine telecommunications and the first transatlantic cables in particular the current survey by the “Celtic Explorer” is a dream come true. I have lived for several years working with archive data on soundings made prior to the 1858 cable lay together with data from GEBCO bathymetry atlas and to now see the sonar imaging of the (at that time) totally unknown Charlie-Gibbs FZ is a wonderful confirmation of just how risky / hazardous the 1858 expedition really was.
    US Navy Surveyor Matthew Maury had published his map in 1855 prior to the laying of the cable indicating the route to be ” a plateau which seems to have been placed…….etc to keep the cable out of harm’s way” Today we can be certain that his “Telegraph Plateau” did have its peaks and pitfalls !.
    My congratulations to all concerned with the expedition and particular thanks to Tommy Furey and Fabio Sacchetti (Informar / Marine Institute) for their support in my work and allowing me to share some of the data they have been collecting in the past week.
    I shall be mentioning this in a short paper I am presenting at a Symposium in Oxford on Tuesday 16th June on the History of Communications ::

    Allan Green

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