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Mapping Earth's Final Frontier — The Ocean Floor

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Miles off the coast lies the end of the continental shelf, a boundary for sovereignty and, evidently, scientific research.
Trevor Huxham: https://flic.kr/p/dRQKRk
Miles off the coast lies the end of the continental shelf, a boundary for sovereignty and, evidently, scientific research.

The old Star Trek intro proclaimed that space was the “final frontier. Well, the truth is that there is plenty of pioneering left to do right here on earth, much of it underneath that vast expanse of blue that called the ocean.

John Haines is the program coordinator at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Coastal and Marine Programs. Haines and his colleagues are using something akin to ultrasound to get a better sense of what the ocean floor looks like.

The method is not without controversy, since some environmental groups say the technique poses dangers to marine mammals. Haines sat down at USGS headquarters, in Reston, Virginia, to talk about the task of mapping the ocean along the U.S. coast.

On what is known about the boundaries of the ocean:

“The, the sea treaty tells us what is required to establish the limits over which your nation has sovereignty. Some simple pieces: all coastal nations have 200 miles out over which they control most resources. In the U.S., that’s the Exclusive Economic Zone that President Reagan established in 1983. Beyond that, law provides an opportunity to establish an extended continental shelf. One of the reasons we're doing this project is we simply lack the knowledge to answer that simple question. Here are the rules to defining the limits of your continental shelf; you need certain data; you need certain analyses. We don't have those; we haven't been there.”

On the challenges of researching the ocean:

“I think we haven't done the uniform systematic mapping that we've done for the moon. The ocean really, as an oceanographer, it’s our space program, to learn as much as we can. Now the ocean provides some challenges. It’s covered in water, that’s unfortunate. There’s nothing we can do about that. So we don't have the same sort of satellite remote sensing tools. We have to go to sea, and it’s big, and very slowly, cover the ground as best we can.”

On the controversy surrounding his research:

“The tools we use largely depend on the fact that sound, just as with an ultrasound in your doctor’s office, will penetrate the sea and the sea bed and allow us to image what’s underneath. It’s really the only tool we have to do that. That said, we know that a variety of marine mammals are sensitive to sound. So we take great care in how we design our studies and how we conduct our research. Everything we do in that regard is subject to approval through a regulatory process to make sure that we're compliant with all the laws and that what we do reflects the best available scientific knowledge.”

Music: "Open Sea Theme" by Various Artists from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

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