Enter the depths of the abyss in 3D

 

A new atlas features 3D images of the most extensive deepwater survey of its type in Europe, extending from the Irish edge of the continental shelf 1,000km into the Atlantic

JRR TOLKIEN would have been enthralled, as would the British geologist who named parts of the Irish sea-bed after his realm of Middle Earth some decades ago. Images of submarine canyons, underwater mountains and abyssal plains lying off our west coast have been collated in a new atlas which depicts the “real map of Ireland”.

The Atlas of the Deep Water Seabed, Ireland, charting a marine territory 10 times this island’s land mass, has been compiled by University College Cork (UCC), working with the Geological Survey of Ireland (GSI) and the Marine Institute.

The atlas draws on data gathered by the Irish national seabed survey, which was initiated by the GSI in 1999. Its publication was marked in Dublin yesterday by the Minister of State for Natural Resources Conor Lenihan, when he opened the Geoscience 2010 conference in Dublin Castle.

The three-dimensional images chronicle the extent of survey work conducted between depths of 200 and 3,500 metres. The deepwater survey was the most extensive of its type in Europe, extending from the edge of Ireland’s continental shelf some 50km west to a distance of 1,000km into the Atlantic.

Ireland may be the first country in the world to map its underwater territory in such detail, according to one of the atlas’s co-authors, Dr Boris Dorschel, a researcher in the university’s school of biological, earth and environmental sciences. “It shows that Ireland doesn’t stop at the coastline and that there is an incredibly rich and varied resource out there,” he says.

Sensitive habitats of deepwater coral, an offshore “eiscir riada” or glacial ridge that gives the southwest coast one of its “feet” and a 40km fault line, which indicates that this island was once two halves, were among the many discoveries recorded during the survey work.

Old shipwrecks, such as the Lusitaniaoff the south coast, could be seen in the colour coding for some of the first maps, with dark blue matching the deepest areas. “The maps have an aesthetic quality – they really are quite beautiful,” says Dr Dorschel.

After years of lobbying by GSI geologists, the seabed survey started in 1999 with a budget of £21 million (€26.6 million). A former British navy ship, the 79.25-metre RV Bligh, was one of two vessels contracted to conduct the initial work.

By 2005, the survey had mapped an area equivalent to the territory of Germany and Austria combined. Data had been collected by 11 survey ships and several aircraft across a sea area extending more than 1,100kms out west or, as the GSI put it, “halfway between here and Iceland”.

Once the deepwater element was completed, the joint survey moved closer to dry land. In 2006, an inshore survey was begun off the southwest coast. It is called Infomar (Integrated mapping for the sustainable development of Ireland’s marine resource) and it could last another 15 years, funding permitting. The extensive data already gathered has application for discovery of organisms that produce “bioactive” compounds with possible therapeutic applications, hydrocarbon exploration, offshore windfarm site selection, work on marine aggregate resources, habitat mapping and policy formation on protection of carbonate mounds and coldwater coral reefs.

Its evidence of extreme weather events could also contribute to climate change research, to ocean modelling and to continued studies of marine life, including the extensive activity in Irish waters of marine mammals such as dolphins or whales. It was while UCC was working on some data as part of its own research on cold water coral that the atlas idea evolved, Dorschel says. “Technological advances in sea mapping using multi-beam sonar have made these images possible, and the atlas is a showcase and a potential data set that reflects the tremendous effort made by many people to gather this material,” he says.

The minister described the atlas yesterday as a

“world-first in the level of detail it provides” and the culmination of years of extensive research. “It will be a valuable resource as we seek to utilise our vast ocean resources in the years ahead,” he said. “As we develop ocean energy, offshore wind and further oil and gas prospecting, an accurate map of the deep seabed will be vital.”

The Geoscience 2010 conference follows a one-day conference organised by the minister’s department for the petroleum industry, where he pledged to “open the Irish offshore to international business”. He has recently returned from Singapore where he publicised Ireland’s largest licensing round to date.


The Atlas of the Deep Water Seabed– Ireland is published by Springer, and available in selected bookshops