Swath sonar mapping of Earth's submarine plate boundaries

Wednesday, 17 December 2014: 1:40 PM
Suzanne M Carbotte, Vicki Lynn Ferrini, Mollie Celnick, Frank Oliver Nitsche and William B F Ryan, Lamont -Doherty Earth Observatory, Palisades, NY, United States
The recent loss of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 in an area of the Indian Ocean where less than 5% of the seafloor is mapped with depth sounding data (Smith and Marks, EOS 2014) highlights the striking lack of detailed knowledge of the topography of the seabed for much of the worlds’ oceans. Advances in swath sonar mapping technology over the past 30 years have led to dramatic improvements in our capability to map the seabed. However, the oceans are vast and only an estimated 10% of the seafloor has been mapped with these systems. Furthermore, the available coverage is highly heterogeneous and focused within areas of national strategic priority and community scientific interest. The major plate boundaries that encircle the globe, most of which are located in the submarine environment, have been a significant focus of marine geoscience research since the advent of swath sonar mapping. While the location of these plate boundaries are well defined from satellite-derived bathymetry, significant regions remain unmapped at the high-resolutions provided by swath sonars and that are needed to study active volcanic and tectonic plate boundary processes. Within the plate interiors, some fossil plate boundary zones, major hotspot volcanoes, and other volcanic provinces have been the focus of dedicated research programs. Away from these major tectonic structures, swath mapping coverage is limited to sparse ocean transit lines which often reveal previously unknown deep-sea channels and other little studied sedimentary structures not resolvable in existing low-resolution global compilations, highlighting the value of these data even in the tectonically quiet plate interiors.

Here, we give an overview of multibeam swath sonar mapping of the major plate boundaries of the globe as extracted from public archives. Significant quantities of swath sonar data acquired from deep-sea regions are in restricted-access international archives. Open access to more of these data sets would enable global comparisons of plate boundary structures and processes and could facilitate a more coordinated approach to optimizing the future acquisition of these high-value data by the global research community.