By Samantha Clark, Santa Cruz Sentinel
SANTA CRUZ >> Exploring 2,000 miles of the ocean floor is just mouse clicks away.
The U.S. Geological Survey recently uploaded thousands of photos and videos of seabed along the nation’s coastline. With an interactive map, users can virtually dive into the shores of the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific, including almost all of California. Puget Sound, Hawaii and the Arctic are next on the list for future efforts.
From colorful corals to sandy seafloor, most of the locations covered by the new imagery have never been seen before.
The new portal is a tool for coastal managers and scientists to study seafloor composition and habitats by providing a window to monitor changes to the coast. Having rich data allows them to better protect ocean life and understand hazards, such as sea level rise, earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes.
“All these things give a really useful picture for asking questions and making comparisons,” said Nadine Golden, a USGS geographer based in Santa Cruz and project lead. “We want everyone to have equal access to the data.”
To gather the imagery, scientists in California made numerous expeditions a year since 2005. Behind their boats, they dragged cameras shooting frames every 30 seconds and filming from different angles. Data from the Atlantic and Gulf comes from a combination of boat and aircraft surveys.
Now researchers and the public alike can explore 100,000 photos and 1,000 hours of video footage featuring 2,000 miles of coastline nationwide, along with maps showing exact locations, recorded real-time observations, predicted habit ranges for particular organisms, sonar information and more. Accessing all that once-disjointed information before persisted as a cumbersome task for researchers.
However, while much of the imagery may bore the untrained eye, it is a wealth of important data, Golden said.
“Most people probably get more excited over the rocky reefs where you see a lot more animal and plant life and there’s more color,” she said, “but it’s still good information.”
Knowing how sand and mud patterns form is becoming increasingly significant given that California beaches suffer from sand depletion and erosion, she said.
And since the USGS unveiled the imagery last week, other researchers are already using the data in ways she hadn’t imagined. Local marine students are discussing how the portal can help them plan fieldwork. By learning beforehand where critters have been spotted, they can save time and money on research.
“It costs a lot to go out on a ship and collect data,” said Golden. “In order to know how to preserve the habitat and which organism, we have to know what their environment is like, how it’s being affected. Without knowing where it is, we can’t protect it.”
The public too can explore nearby or faraway shores. Golden hopes people will continue to question the portal’s data in new ways.
“I’m hoping that people are more creative beyond what I’m thinking,” she said.