Map Room: Lost at Sea


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From the Spring 2015 Issue "The Unknown"


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When Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 disappeared last March, many wondered why search-and-rescue crews could not easily locate a 200-foot wide Boeing 777. The answer, however, was quite complicated. Vast stretches of the Indian Ocean, where the plane is alleged to have disappeared, are unknown to geographers and cartographers alike. In this Map Room, we focus on the unchartered surfaces and depths of the Indian Ocean. Our first map focuses on the unknown surfaces. To measure this, NASA tracks shipping routes. Ships’ combustion engines give off nitrogen dioxide (NO2) as they pass through the Ocean. Reduced NO2 emissions indicate reduced traffic, or areas of the water that ships do not dare pass through. The map shows that large stretches of the Indian Ocean are mostly free of this pollution.

In the second map, we focus on the unknown depths of the Indian Ocean. Multi-beam sonar is a method commonly used to map the ocean floor. Using this method, scientists measure the amount of time it takes for sound to travel from the surface to the ocean floor and back. The National Geophysical Data Center produced the map below. The black shading denotes areas mapped by multi-beam sonar. In most cases, the shaded areas are even narrower than can easily be expressed below. The wide white gaps indicate that vast swaths of the ocean floor remain unmapped. Experts estimate that only around 10 percent is mapped. This complicates search and rescue procedures in incidents like aviation accidents.


Compiled by Patrick Balbierz and Evan Gottesman 

Designed by Meehyun Nan-Thompson

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