The coastal waters of the United States cover an area dwarfing the nation itself. Yet more than half of that ocean floor is a blank—unmapped by all but low-resolution satellite imagery.
Now, the White House has announced a new push to examine these 11.6 million square kilometers of undersea territory. President Donald Trump this week signed a memorandum ordering federal officials to draft a new strategy that would accelerate federal efforts to map and explore these reaches.
The 19 November declaration comes at a time of growing interest in mapping the world’s ocean floors. A consortium of scientists from around the world is working to create a complete, detailed picture of the global seabed by 2030. Nations are probing the ocean floor in search of valuable minerals, oil, and gas. In 2021, the United Nations will launch what it’s calling the decade of ocean science.
The new federal initiative could help coordinate what has been a hodgepodge of mapping by industry, government, and academic researchers, says Vicki Ferrini, a marine geophysicist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. “Having an overarching national coordinated strategy is, I think, going to be a game changer,” says Ferrini, who is part of the international Seabed 2030 campaign. That campaign is led by the Tokyo-based Nippon Foundation and the nonprofit General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans in London.
The new presidential memo directs the White House’s Ocean Policy Committee to, within 6 months, draft a strategy to map U.S. territorial waters, which stretch 320 kilometers from the coast. Today, roughly 40% of that area is charted, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It puts special emphasis on coastal waters around Alaska, where mapping is particularly sparse, and pressures including coastal erosion, climate change, and offshore oil exploration are converging.
Detailed seafloor maps are vital to understanding earth and ocean dynamics, identify biological hot spots, and guide exploration for minerals and oil and gas, scientists say. For instance, Japanese scientists were able to reconstruct the forces that drove the devastating 2011 Tohoku earthquake in part because they had previously mapped the sea floor where the quake happened, says Charlie Paull, a marine geologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in Moss Landing, California.
By contrast, much less is known about the ocean floor off the U.S. Pacific Northwest, where scientists have identified a massive fault that could trigger a magnitude-9 quake. “It will be a woeful disgrace if the event happens and we haven’t done the first order of homework,” Paull says.
The Trump administration’s ocean policies, first articulated in June 2018, have drawn criticism from conservation groups for emphasizing economic development, particularly offshore oil and gas exploration. But the interest in ocean mapping could give a boost to research, says Amy Trice of the Ocean Conservancy, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit devoted to ocean science and conservation. “The next step is: Are there going to be resources that actually go toward advancing the strategy? I think that’s the hope,” Trice says.
In the past, the administration has sought to cut money for federal programs responsible for ocean mapping. Its 2020 budget request to Congress, for example, proposed a 16% cut NOAA programs that play a key role. (Congress has largely rejected those cuts, although it has not yet completed work on 2020 spending bills.)
The new initiative has raised concerns it could weaken regulations on environmental impacts. In particular, the presidential order directs officials to “increase the efficiency” of permitting for ocean exploration and mapping. Conservationists in the Southeast and elsewhere have sued to block methods that use blasts of sounds to map the sea floor and the geology below it, arguing that such seismic techniques can harm sea life such as whales. And Sierra Weaver, a lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is leery about talk of making permitting for seafloor mapping more efficient. “We all know with this administration, when they say streamlining, what this really means is rollback,” she says.
That’s not the intention, says a White House official with Office of Science and Technology Policy who is involved in ocean policy. The goal is to reduce red tape for scientific expeditions by federal scientists or researchers working with federal funding. “This is not about opening up a new avenue for expedited permitting” for oil and gas exploration said the official, who declined to be named.
U.S. scientists are already pressing ahead. Federal scientists have spent the past 3 years creating better maps off the Pacific coast, in an effort to find deep ocean coral habitat, highlight faults that might trigger tsunamis, and examine spots were offshore wind turbines might be placed.
Meanwhile, new technology promises to make ocean mapping faster and cheaper, Ferrini says. Desk-size drones or autonomous kayaks can cruise shallow ocean areas with special sonar. Torpedo-shaped vessels can plunge into the ocean deeps. Earlier this year, the XPRIZE Foundation awarded $7 million in a competition for autonomous tools to explore the deep ocean. A mapping project won. “In the world of ocean mapping,” Ferrini says, “we’re kind of at the brink of a big shift.”