Seafloor Mapped Using Measurements of the Earth’s Gravity Field

Elizabeth Borneman


A new map of the world’s sea floor has been created using new data gathered by researchers. This map is unique; it is a gravity map used to see the sea floor based on Earth’s gravitational field. The map can be used by submarines, ships, and other organizations to navigate the ocean, both above and below. Uncharted areas of the sea floor can be problematic for researchers and those who hope to work or travel through the deep oceans.

Seafloor gravity maps are good for more than just navigation, though. Gravity maps can also help researchers see how continental shelves and tectonic plates are moving deep beneath the surface of the Earth.  Underwater sea formations like valleys, basins, and mountain ranges are directly influenced by the movement of tectonic plates. Through studying deep sea geography scientists can learn how the movement of the tectonic plates created the landmasses and continents we see today.

NASA Earth Observatory maps by Joshua Stevens, using data from Sandwell, D. et al. (2014).
NASA Earth Observatory maps by Joshua Stevens, using data from Sandwell, D. et al. (2014).

Gravity maps also lead to continued research into locations where gravity behaves differently. There are gravity anomalies in the Indian Ocean which can be influenced by nearby tectonic plates as well as seafloor geography. The gravity map was created using satellite data and imagery from the European Space Agency and NASA.

This new map also revealed a new scientific discovery- a microplate is floating in the Indian Ocean after having broken off from one of the larger plates nearby. The researchers named the microplate the Mammerickx Microplate after Jacqueline Mammerickx, a pioneer of this sort of mapping. Microplates are formed when two continents run into each other, bouncing off one another and changing their direction of movement.

NASA Earth Observatory maps by Joshua Stevens, using data from Sandwell, D. et al. (2014).
Location of the The Mammerickx Microplane in the Indian Ocean. Map: Joshua Stevens, using data from Sandwell, D. et al. (2014).

The new map can also help researchers determine where and when earthquakes could occur. By studying the movement of the plates and the zones where contact is common, researchers can continue to improve their earthquake predictions. The gravity map is a valuable resource not only for navigating the deep waters of the Earth’s oceans, but for scientists searching for answers.


Sandwell, D. T., Müller, R. D., Smith, W. H., Garcia, E., & Francis, R. (2014). New global marine gravity model from CryoSat-2 and Jason-1 reveals buried tectonic structurescience346(6205), 65-67.

Seafloor Features Are Revealed by the Gravity Field, NASA Earth Observatory, December 29, 2015

New Seafloor Map Helps Scientists Find New Features, NASA Earth Observatory, January 13, 2016

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About the author
Elizabeth Borneman
My name is Elizabeth Borneman and I am a freelance writer, reader, and coffee drinker. I live on a small island in Alaska, which gives me plenty of time to fish, hike, kayak, and be inspired by nature. I enjoy writing about the natural world and find lots of ways to flex my creative muscles on the beach, in the forest, or down at the local coffee shop.

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