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SPECIAL COVERAGE: Living With Wildfires: San Diego Firestorm 10 Years Later

San Diego Scientists Map Unseen Features Of Ocean Floor

The seafloor spreads along tectonic ridges and faults, marked by the red dots...

Photo by David Sandwell / Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Above: The seafloor spreads along tectonic ridges and faults, marked by the red dots overlaying this region of the Indian Ocean, Oct. 2, 2014.

Eighty percent of the seafloor remains unmapped, including part of the Indian Ocean where a missing Malaysian Airlines jet went down earlier this year. Put another way, we know more about the terrain of Mars than we do about two-thirds of the Earth's surface.

Our map of the seafloor just got a bit more detailed though, thanks to the San Diego scientists behind a new study published in Science.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography professor David Sandwell and his colleagues discovered features of the ocean floor never before seen in previous maps. That includes thousands of underwater mountains, an ancient tectonic ridge in the Gulf of Mexico and continental connections between Africa and South America.

The researchers found all this without research vessels at sea. Instead, they repurposed satellites initially designed to monitor polar ice caps and El Niño events.

Sandwell says these satellites beamed radar signals from hundreds of miles above Earth down to the ocean's surface, which then allowed them to trace the outline of the ocean's depths.

"You think the ocean's surface is pretty flat or spherical," Sandwell said, "but it has these bumps and dips that mimic exactly what's at the bottom of the ocean."

Sandwell's findings will soon show up on a higher-resolution version of Google Earth. The video below provides a snapshot of his team's discoveries:

Draining the Ocean Basins with CryoSat-2

Scripps Institution of Oceanography

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