Palo Alto-based institute supports team's daunting task of mapping world's ocean floor

PALO ALTO, Calif. (KGO) -- Scientists have long noted that we've mapped more of the moon's surface than we have the floor of our oceans. That is about to change. The daunting task has a small team of researchers off the Australian coast spending the New Year, battling high winds and churning seas. Their work has ties to the Bay Area.

Scientists off the east coast of Australia are pinging in the New Year. They're sending out sonar beams from a research vessel as a 10-year international effort gets underway to map the entire ocean floor.

"We have a huge task ahead of us," said Dr. Helen Bostock, an oceanographer on the faculty at the University of Queensland in Australia. "So far, less than 20 percent of the oceans have been mapped, and so we still have 80 percent to go."

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ABC7 News spoke with her by Zoom, where she is on board the research vessel Falkor in the Coral Sea.

A team of 23 aboard the Falkor is getting support from the Schmidt Ocean Institute, based in Palo Alto. The pinging project will create a publicly accessible database that will produce a 3D view of the floor. Trenches in the Coral Sea can be over five and a half miles deep.

"It actually creates 800 beams across and all of those individual soundings get compiled into a surface so we can take many millions of soundings and create a three-dimensional surface of the sea floor," said Deborah Smith, an American marine technician with the Schmidt Ocean Institute.

The United Nations has declared this the ocean decade. Earlier expeditions by Falkor teams have already yielded new discoveries.

"We found over 50 new species this year, the world's largest species - a 150 foot sepanaphor - and a brand new coral reef that had never been seen in the Great Barrier Reef," said Schmidt Ocean Institute's Dr. Carlie Wiener by Zoom from her base in Honolulu.

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The research has drawn global interest. Live feeds provide real-time data and video. During the pandemic, scientists have been able to conduct research remotely. The goal to complete mapping by 2030 will require more than the Falkor. Other ships and vessels with space to carry equipment will be enlisted. While the mapping is pre-planned, the dynamics of deep sea volcanic eruptions and related changes could alter plans.

"We need to have this snapshot to then look at these changes," said Dr. Bostock. "If we don't have the baseline, then we won't understand more about how things change through time."

All of this will lead to more knowledge of climate change and the ocean ecosystem and yield benefits to humanity, sea creatures and deep ocean organisms.
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