A group of international researchers has mapped more of the Arctic Ocean floor than ever before

The Arctic ocean floors just got a little less mysterious now that a team of international researchers has compiled the most detailed map of the Arctic seabed to date.

Latest map shows about 20 per cent of sea floor, compared to 7 per cent in 2012

A group of international researchers helped compile an updated map of the Arctic Ocean seabed. The map is now almost 20 per cent complete, compared to the previous map published in 2012, which depicted about seven per cent of the Arctic Ocean floor. (Submitted by Martin Jakobsson)

The Arctic Ocean floor just got a little less mysterious.

A team of international researchers has compiled the most detailed map of the Arctic seabed to date. It was published earlier this month in the journal Scientific Data.

The map is part of this year's contribution to the Nippon Foundation-GEBCO Seabed 2030 Project, which seeks to map the world's ocean floor by 2030.

"It's truly an international effort," said Martin Jakobsson, a professor at Stockholm University in Sweden. He co-led the scientific team of experts from 15 countries who helped produce the map.

The data was collected with the help of oceanographic vessels, icebreakers and nuclear submarines, according to the study. No other ships can reach such icy regions of the world.

The improved map — called the International Bathymetric Chart of the Arctic Ocean — will help broaden the knowledge of the sensitive region and help with future studies on the Arctic.

The map now shows almost 20 per cent of the Arctic Ocean floor. The last version, published in 2012, covered only about seven per cent of it.

Understanding climate change

The initiative to create the International Bathymetric Chart of the Arctic Ocean started in Russia in 1997, according to the journal article.

Jakobsson said it will help track climate change in the Arctic Ocean.

"It's very hard to take care of something and make sure you can take the right kind of measures to protect it if you don't really know what it looks like," Jakobsson said. "So we simply need that basic understanding."

In his own research, for example, Jakobsson said he focuses on glaciers from the Greenland ice sheet that are melting from underneath, partly because of warming water.

"In order to know where you can have these glaciers susceptible to warm water in-flow, we must know how the sea floor looks," he said.

The map was produced by experts from 15 countries. Martin Jakobsson, a professor at Stockholm University, co-led the scientific team. (Submitted by Martin Jakobsson)

A claim for the North Pole

Some of the information used to compile the map was provided by countries that have made claims to the North Pole and the seabed around it, and that have an interest in the possible resources it might contain.

That includes Canada, which, in May of 2019, submitted a scientific argument to the United Nations — 2,100 pages of evidence — for control of a vast portion of the Arctic seabed, including the North Pole.

The drive for information to make those claims to the North Pole can help establish these kinds of maps, said Rob Huebert, an associate professor in political science at the University of Calgary. His research focuses on Arctic sovereignty and security. 

"The reality is that we're still trying to determine what the Arctic Ocean looks like, even in 2020," Huebert said. "We don't know because of the ice cover. It's been so difficult to have any determination."

He says the knowledge of hydrographics is changing constantly in terms of how we understand the Arctic.​​​​​

An autonomous underwater vehicle used at an ice camp to map Canada’s continental shelf in the Arctic Ocean. Oceanographic vessels, icebreakers and nuclear submarines were used to help create the latest map of the Arctic Ocean floor. (Geological Survey of Canada/Natural Resources Canada)

Jakobsson said his team will press on to complete the map. 

"We are determined to continue," Jakobsson said, adding he hopes to get more data from industries and countries researching the depths of the ocean.

"We have 80 per cent left, so we have a big job."