Can submarines hide in deep ocean trenches?

Geological wonderland & colon; Thousands of seamounts discovered in the new seabed map


A new topographical map of the Earth's mysterious ocean floor reveals thousands of towering volcanoes, hid scraps where supercontinents tore and other never-before-seen features once obscured by miles of water and thick sediment.

The topography of the earth's seabed is like corrugated cardboard and bumpy as a book in Braille. By reading these peaks and ridges, scientists can chronicle the birth of the new ocean crust and the last migrations of the earth's continents.

However, although the ocean floor carries the crucial clues to plate tectonics, the arid surface of Mars has been more clearly detailed than watery ocean depths.

The new map, published today (Oct. 2) in the journal Science, promises to fill in some of the gaps. Compared to the previous 1997 map, overall resolution is twice as accurate and four times better in coastal areas and the Arctic, said lead study author David Sandwell, marine geophysicist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. [Hidden undersea mountains uncovered with satellites (photos)]

Eyes to the sky

As with the earlier 1997 map, scientists expect to improve their knowledge of the Earth's geological history using the new features revealed by the map's finer scale.

"I think this data is very important in terms of the details that are to come," Sandwell told Live Science.

The sea floor topography comes from a gravity model of the ocean, which in turn is based on height measurements from the Jason-1 and Cryosat-2 satellites.

Altitude measurement measures sea surface height from space by timing how long a radar signal takes from the ocean and back accordingly. The ocean surface has subtle ups and downs that mimic the topography of the ocean floor and earth's gravitational field.

"[These] results represent a breakthrough in marine gravity space-based observation," wrote Cheinway Hwang, who was not involved in the study, in a comment accompanying the report. Hwang is a professor at National Chiao Tung University in Hsinchu, Taiwan.

Thousands of volcanoes

The world volcano Graf jumped tremendously thanks to the new map. The number of seamounts rose from around 5,000 to around 20,000, Sandwell said. Underwater mountains are small, conical volcanoes that are usually inactive or extinct. In the deep sea, high seamounts create an uprising in the underwater world. The map captures all seamounts more than 0.9 miles (1.5 km) high.

Some of the new seamounts appear in linear chains, but many do not. This suggests that the volcanoes do not break over a mantle plume, a blob of hot stone rising from the earth's deep mantle (the layer beneath the crust). Some scientists believe coat feathers do not exist, but as with climate change the majority of researchers agree that the concept but argue over the details.

Finding patterns in the newly identified seamounts can help resolve the debate. "There's a notion that many linear volcanic chains aren't formed by mantle springs, and I agree," Sandwell said. "If we map their complete distribution, then we can understand how they grow and develop and so on."

The movement of the Earth's tectonic plates created some of the most noticeable features visible on the ocean floor. These include proliferation ridges and fracture zones where the massive plates pull apart and lava seeps to the surface. Sheets are created at spread ridges and recycled in deep ocean trenches. The ocean trenches appear as deep blue troughs on the gravity map. [Infographic: highest mountain to deepest ocean trench]

"Even now, I'm just amazed at how easily seabed patterns are to spread," Sandwell told Live Science. "They're just like the textbooks." It's just perfect plate tectonics. "

See, the wrinkles of the earth

For the first time, the global ocean floor topography captures the abyssal hills, the most commonly used surface element on Earth, the study reports. While the secrets of its origin are still debated, scientists believe a combination of normal faults and volcanism spreading mountain ridges creates the mounds. The corrugated ridges and valleys cover up to 30 percent of the earth's surface, by some estimates. "They are the most common landform on the planet, and I keep amazed that people have never heard of them," said Sandwell.

Along the coasts, the data discovered flaws and fractures buried under thick piles of mud and sand from the continents.

Sandwell and his colleagues highlighted the new details seen in fracture zones that stretch from South America to Africa. "We can see these faults transform or rupture zones all the way to the continental margins that are currently buried by sediment, and you couldn't see them before," Sandwell said. Although the two continents seem to fit together like puzzle pieces, "wavy lines" in the ruptures tell of tectonic complexities during their separation, he added. "These are something new," said Sandwell. Analyzing such details on each continent will improve reconstructions of recent plate movements.

In the Gulf of Mexico, researchers identified a defunct spreading ridge now buried under miles of sediment. The spreading ridge opened the gulf about 150 million years ago when the Yucatan Peninsula pivoted counterclockwise from North America. [In pictures: how North America grew as a continent]

"Because of a substantial improvement in the accuracy of this new gravitational field, it will lead to more discoveries of tectonic functions, especially in regions with thick sediments," Hwang wrote.

Most of the new ridges, faults and volcanoes were undiscovered because 80 percent of the ocean floor has never been mapped by ships. The new topography will improve depth estimates in much of the ocean, the researchers said.

e-mailBecky Oskinor follow her@beckyoskin. Follow us@livescience,Facebook &Google+.

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