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Mapping the Seafloor

Making Waves: Episode 131

Creating a habitat ecosystem map of the seafloor is a tricky process. Learn how it works in this two-minute video.


You might call this seafloor mapping central. These folks are an overnight shift collecting multibeam sonar data on the NOAA Ship Nancy Foster.

Multibeam is used for updating NOAA nautical charts, but here it’s also being used to map seafloor ecosystems.

Here’s how it works. Multibeam sonar signals are sent out from the ship.

With about 1500 sonar soundings sent out per second, multibeam “paints” the seafloor in a fanlike pattern. This creates a detailed “sound map” that shows ocean depth, bottom type, and topographic features.

But multibeam is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to creating habitat maps.

Researchers also want to get a sense of what fish live in the habitats they are mapping, so they use a second device called a split beam sonar that specializes in finding fish in the water column.

The last step: remotely operated vehicles are deployed to record video at different sites in the area being mapped. These video samples serve to visually verify what the scientists are seeing with the sonar. 

Once this complex process is completed for one region of the ocean, scientists can then create a finely-detailed ecosystem map.

This map can tell scientists and resource managers important details, such as the distribution and health of a coral reef ecosystem or which areas that certain species of fish prefer for spawning.

And that helps us better conserve and protect our ocean and all the creatures that live there.

Learn more at oceanservice.noaa.gov