Image shows coverage in the 2023 GEBCO grid, with a focus on the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Black areas of the ocean indicate unmapped ocean and blues-purples indicate water depth revealed by measured bathymetric data. Credit: Vicki Ferrini and Hayley Drennon

An additional 5.4 million square kilometres of new data – equating to an area twice the size of Argentina – has been added to the definitive map of the world’s ocean floor, with 24.9 per cent of the seabed now mapped.

The latest figure was announced by HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco during the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) Assembly, currently taking place in Monaco. Formed by the representatives of its 98 Member States and Observers, the Assembly meets triannually to discuss new developments in technical standards, ocean mapping and agree on resolutions to guide activities.

The global effort behind mapping the world’s entire ocean floor before the end of the decade is being spearheaded by Seabed 2030 – a collaborative project between The Nippon Foundation and the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO), itself a joint programme of the IHO and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO.

As the only organisation with a mandate to map the entire ocean floor, GEBCO provides the most authoritative data sets for the world’s ocean.

Speaking at the opening ceremony, Prince Albert II praised developments made in ocean mapping, and acknowledged the role of GEBCO – which this year is celebrating 120 years. GEBCO was initiated in 1903 by his ancestor, Prince Albert I of Monaco.

Mapping the ocean floor is a critical step towards informing decision-making in areas such as resource management, environmental change, and ocean conservation. It directly supports UN SDG 14, to conserve and sustainably use the ocean. Seabed 2030 is a formally endorsed Action of the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development 2021-2030 (The Ocean Decade).

When Seabed 2030 was launched in 2017 to act as a catalyst for the mapping of the ocean floor, only six per cent had been mapped in high resolution. In that same year, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the Ocean Decade with a key challenge of developing a comprehensive map of the ocean, to ensure a more sustainable management of the marine environment and its resources.

In six years, a monumental total of 90 million square kilometres of bathymetric data has been acquired by virtue of global partnerships, data mobilisation, and strides in technological innovation. This has led to consequential developments in scientific research, as well as a range of discoveries. Just last month the new seamount catalogue was published including over 19,000 newly discovered undersea volcanoes. Such discoveries help to advance studies in ecology, ocean mixing and plate tectonics, and improve our ability to protect and sustainably manage our ocean.

Even with recent progress, three quarters of the ocean remain a mystery. Some of the key challenges to mapping the entire ocean floor include overcoming the vast scale and depth of the ocean, limited technological capabilities, the high-cost of mapping expeditions, and capacity building.

In addition to ocean mapping activities, Seabed 2030, The Nippon Foundation, GEBCO, IHO and IOC-UNESCO place a strong emphasis on capacity building, with the goal of empowering the next generation of hydrographers and ocean researchers.

To this end, the Nippon Foundation-GEBCO training programme and the IHO’s Empowering Women in Hydrography initiative aim to build a diverse and inclusive community of ocean mappers. These initiatives form a vital component of efforts supporting the overall development goals of the UN and the Ocean Decade, which seeks to build ocean literacy through citizen and community empowerment.

Recent advances in ocean mapping are a testament to the power of collaboration, innovation, and dedication to a shared goal – for the benefit of humanity. GEBCO’s 120th anniversary is a reminder of the significant progress that has been made over the past century and how much is left to be done.

The goal is ambitious yet entirely achievable if we can mobilise the global community to participate. Everyone with a link to the ocean can play a powerful role in helping to map the entire seafloor by the end of the decade.

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