Cambridge teams have brought back some of the most detailed data ever collected about the sea bed in the Arctic and Antarctic. As a result we now have better maps and know more about how icebergs travel, which helps keep global shipping and vital pipelines safer.

From Greenland to Antarctica, lack of depth data is a serious hazard to shipping

Politicians too need better maps of the Arctic to help resolve regional geopolitical and economic disputes

Better charts, safer ships

Thanks to the data Professor Julian Dowdeswell has collected over many years in some of the world’s most dangerous waters, we now have a clearer picture of these sea beds – making global shipping safer in the remotest regions on Earth.

Gathered on board the British Antarctic Survey’s RRS James Clark Ross, Dowdeswell’s data has been incorporated into the International Bathymetric Chart of the Arctic Ocean, which governments and industry use both for economic claims and for exploration and navigation.

From Greenland to Antarctica, Dowdeswell’s data has helped improve the accuracy of navigational charts, especially in isolated areas of the polar seas where lack of depth data is a serious hazard to shipping. Ships and their passengers are safer as a result, including the 30,000 tourists who visit the Antarctic every year on board international cruise ships.

And as well as safer ships, the satellite data Dowdeswell has used to measure the size and drift tracks of icebergs is helping industry keep Arctic underwater cables and pipelines safer.

Polar problems

The seas around the Arctic and Antarctic are among the most poorly mapped and dangerous waters in the world. Collecting detailed sea floor data is risky and expensive.

We know little about the sea floor topography in polar seas. Continental shelves, submerged in relatively shallow waters, can extend for hundreds of kilometres out to sea. And the sea floor is covered with ridges, basins and deep furrows carved by the keels of massive icebergs.

But better maps are essential for safe passage of ships in polar waters, especially as the volume of shipping rises. Recent years have seen substantial increase in maritime traffic around the Arctic and Antarctic.

More ships now visit Antarctica, either for research or tourism, while reduction in sea ice in the Arctic during the summer means more of the area is navigable for longer, attracting industries keen to explore and exploit the region’s natural resources.

As well as threats to shipping, icebergs – whose keels extend up to 500m below the surface – can also damage cables and pipelines laid on the sea floor. Politicians too need better maps of the Arctic to help resolve regional geopolitical and economic disputes.

Polar research

Between 1994 and 2009, Dowdeswell led a series of nine cruises to polar seas. Working on board RRS James Clark Ross, a research vessel equipped with state-of-the-art swath bathymetry, his team has collected detailed marine geophysical and geological data.

As well as mapping sea bed topography and water depths in areas like Pine Island Bay in the Antarctic, Dowdeswell has also gathered new data on ploughmarks on the sea floor left by huge icebergs, and combined ship-board with satellite observations to discover more about the size and distribution of icebergs around Antarctica.

At the other end of the Earth, the team has used swath-bathymetry and sub-bottom acoustic profiling to study submarine landforms like meltwater channels and moats, learning more about ice-sheet flow in the Barents Sea and the Fram Strait.

Safer future

From maritime safety to oil and gas exploration, the charts produced from Dowdeswell’s data will be used for years to come, data that will be expanded as the team continues its research in the polar regions.