The U.S. submarine fleet’s biggest adversary lately hasn’t been Red October. In 2005, the nuclear-powered USS San Francisco collided with an underwater volcano, or seamount, at top speed, killing a crew member and injuring most aboard. It happened again in 2021 when the USS Connecticut struck a seamount in the South China Sea, damaging its sonar array.
With only one-quarter of the sea floor mapped with sonar, it is impossible to know how many seamounts exist. But radar satellites that measure ocean height can also find them, by looking for subtle signs of seawater mounding above a hidden seamount, tugged by its gravity. A 2011 census using the method found more than 24,000. High-resolution radar data have now added more than 19,000 new ones. The vast majority—more than 27,000—remain uncharted by sonar. “It’s just mind boggling,” says David Sandwell, a marine geophysicist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who helped lead the work.
Published this month in Earth and Space Science, the new seamount catalog is “a great step forward,” says Larry Mayer, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping. Besides posing navigational hazards, the mountains harbor rare-earth minerals that make them commercial targets for deep-sea miners. Their size and distribution hold clues to plate tectonics and magmatism. They are crucial oases for marine life. And they are pot-stirrers that help control the large-scale ocean flows responsible for sequestering vast amounts of heat and carbon dioxide, says John Lowell, chief hydrographer of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which runs the U.S. military’s satellite mapping efforts. “The better we understand the shape of the sea floor, the better we can prepare [for climate change].” [Continue reading…]