Scientists at the University of New Hampshire recently discovered a new seamount in the Pacific Ocean during a mission to map the outer limits of the U.S. continental shelf. The UNH-NOAA Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping/Joint Hydrographic Center (CCOM/JHC) led the search on a U.S. Navy oceanographic research ship and discovered the 1,100 meter seamount using a technological device called a multibeam echo sounder. It uses sonar to detect variations in ocean floor contours, details that low-resolution satellites cannot capture.
So what exactly are seamounts? They are the rocky remains of long-extinct volcanoes that can rise thousands of meters up from the bottom of the ocean floor. Seamounts are actually fairly common, but they are fascinating for a variety of reasons.
First, it is not Mount Everest but actually a seamount called Mauna Kea that holds the record for Earth’s tallest elevation. (Mauna Kea clocks in at 10,200 meters, more than a thousand meters taller than Everest.) Newly discovered seamounts are also exciting because they host diverse marine life including important fish species. The kicker is that most places that the UNH scientists are mapping have never been mapped before.
The 1,100 meter underwater mountain was found 300 kilometers southeast of Jarvis Island, an uninhabited area that lies in a largely unexplored area in the Pacific Ocean. The seamount has yet to be named and its impact and biological opportunities are still unknown. That’s because it’s base lies 4,000 meters beneath the ocean’s surface and the UNH scientists are not equipped to pull of an investigation of that type or magnitude.
But the Coastal and Ocean Mapping/Joint Hydrographic Center has kept busy with plenty of other tasks since they were founded fourteen years ago. They’ve developed advanced and automated tools to deal with multibeam-sonar data processing. One of these revolutionary developments, a new database approach called The Navigation Surface, is already revolutionizing the industry by reducing processing time by a factor of 30 to 70. It’s being used by nearly every hydrographic software manufacturer thanks to its ability to reduce costs while dramatically increasing efficiency and data quality.
James Gardner, a well-known marine geologist, has led the center’s efforts to map the entire continental shelf, a position he’s held since 2003. But, after more than a decade of exploration and mapping, there is still much work to be done. Gardner explains that they are still making discoveries like this one because “most of the places that we go out and map have never been mapped before.” The deep oceans are a largely unexplored frontier with lots of opportunity for the scientific community.
The full impact of the discovered seamount remains to be seen, but Gardner’s mapping work is already helping the U.S. outline, define, and extend its outer limits within the continental shelf. The U.S. Extended Continental Shelf Task Force is behind projects like this one, which aim to increase U.S. jurisdiction in the deepest waters where this seamount was discovered.