The ocean is vast, deep, and unexplored.
When Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared three years ago this week, the search brought the ocean’s vastness into sharp relief. This is how deep and dark it is three miles down. This is how unlikely you are to spot a downed airliner in 120,000 square nautical miles of open ocean. This is how much we know about the ocean floor—less than we know about the surface of Mars.
As the search dragged on and sonar swept the Indian Ocean, data also piled up. The surveyors found volcanoes and valleys and scars on the sea floor from tectonic plates pulling apart. This arc of ocean, delineated by calculations based on the plane’s last satellite pings, has by chance become one of the most thoroughly mapped regions of the ocean floor.
Scientists with Geoscience Australia, which provided technical advice and support for the search, recently published some of their findings. All of the underwater survey data will be released later this year.
The search area for MH370 is a remote part of the Indian Ocean a couple thousand miles west of Australia. “Geoscience Australia didn’t have any specific scientific interest in the area,” Kim Picard, one of the agency’s scientists, said in an email. But it was obvious that a high-resolution map of 100,000 square miles of ocean floor would have considerable scientific value in addition to aiding in the search for MH370.
Most of what we know about the ocean floor actually comes from gravity-sensing satellites. Gravity is a function of mass, so the areas where Earth’s crust is thicker—like where there is an underwater mountain—will exert ever so slightly more pull on the water. This creates small but detectable bumps on the surface of the water. Using this technique, scientists have mapped the contours of the ocean floor to a resolution of about 2 square miles per pixel. That’s remarkable for data from satellites orbiting many miles above Earth, but not terribly useful when you’re actually down on the ocean floor looking for a missing plane.