Seabed mapping: a critical component of infrastructure

The UK Centre for Seabed Mapping

David Parker, Head of Hydrographic Programmes at the UKHO, emphasises the global importance of seabed mapping

The UK Hydrographic Office (UKHO) has established the UK Centre for Seabed Mapping (UK CSM) to increase the global coverage, quality and accessibility of seabed mapping data, saying it is a critical component of national infrastructure.

Bathymetric image of sand waves on the seabed. Photo: UKHO

The UK CSM’s core focus will be on bathymetry and its associated data. The Centre has established three initial working groups that members can join and contribute to: National Data Collaboration, International Data Collaboration and Data Collection Standards. These working groups will further the discussion and coordination of data accessibility, collection and collaboration, as well as progress work on data standards. The UK CSM will create the conditions and develop the infrastructure that will enable the diverse community of marine geospatial stakeholders to come together to deliver significant, sustained and strategic benefits to the UK.

Twenty-two government agencies were involved in the inaugural Management Group meeting of the UK CSM and have volunteered to participate in the working groups, demonstrating the desire of stakeholders to work together to improve outcomes for seabed mapping.

Around 80 per cent of the world’s oceans are unmapped, unobserved and unexplored, creating a data gap that the newly created UK CSM intends to help plug. The launch of the Centre is particularly timely in the context of the Integrated Review, a comprehensive articulation of the UK’s national security and international policy, and the development of the UK’s Global Britain vision.

The UK CSM was recently submitted as the UK’s Government Voluntary Commitment to the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development at the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon, Portugal. The UK CSM will support goals 9 and 14 by aiming to build resilient infrastructures to promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation, while fostering innovation and the sustainable use of our oceans and marine resources.

Supporting ocean governance

Due to the UK’s role as a world leader in seabed mapping, the UKHO is well positioned to establish a collaborative seabed mapping community that coordinates the collection, management and access of publicly funded data. In line with fulfilling its public duty, the UK CSM will become the key focal point for our seabed mapping community and a unified voice for policy support and influence, with able to develop a network of stakeholders and to enable meaningful cross-government coordination.

The UK CSM will lead collaboration to develop specifications that support UK and international standards for the collection of marine geospatial data. This will provide much-needed consistency and interoperability in developing the marine geospatial ecosystem, in line with the ‘collect once, use many times’ principle. The UK CSM will also improve and increase accessibility and enable free access to data while honouring intellectual property rights, national security and good data governance.

Having a dedicated centre will help stakeholders to understand what data collection activities are planned and to identify opportunities for collaboration, in turn removing duplication while optimising economies of scale and the quality and quantity of data being collected under current public funding.

Putting data to work

Hydrography is the branch of ocean knowledge that deals with the measurement and description of the physical features of oceans, seas, coastal areas, lakes and rivers, as well as with the prediction of their change over time. The information gathered supports safety of navigation and many other marine activities, including: economic development; security and defence; scientific research; environmental protection; habitat mapping; delimitation of national boundaries; geological studies; sediment and pollutant studies; and studies of storm surge and tsunami effects.

UKHO staff deploying an oceanographic sensor for data collection in the British Virgin Islands. The survey, interrupted by hurricanes in 2017 and resumed the following year, fulfilled part of the UK’s Overseas Territories Seabed Mapping Programme commitments. The charts that result will improve access for trade and tourism, enabling a wider range of ships to call safely at the islands, and will also aid infrastructure planning and development, and the achievement of greater resilience against forces of nature. Photo: UKHO

More interoperable and usable data will enable more informed ocean governance and policy, which in turn leads to greater innovation and prosperity. For example, the UKHO is helping to support maritime trade and economic growth in the Cayman Islands with a recent programme of seabed mapping surveys. The data from those surveys will unlock vital new information that will enable safer navigation and the continued development of the islands’ sustainable blue economy.

Under the UK government’s Overseas Territories Seabed Mapping Programme (OTSMP), the UKHO has collected a range of geospatial data in waters around the islands. The survey was conducted by a small aircraft using Lidar data-gathering techniques. The aircraft flew twice daily for periods of up to four hours at a time over the islands, operating at a height of around 300 metres. While airborne, the aircraft’s onboard survey equipment gathered information on water depth and land heights, as well as high resolution images of both land and sea.

Data from these surveys will initially be used to update nautical charts of the waters around the Cayman Islands, including navigable approaches to the territory’s important trade hubs and cruise terminals. This will enable the UKHO to fulfil its role as the Primary Charting Authority for 63 coastal states around the globe, including the UK.

Information captured during the project, including seabed topography and aerial mapping, will also be used to help preserve the marine environment and enable the Cayman Islands government to sustainably harness the territory’s marine economic resources. Additionally, the marine data sets delivered by the survey will provide users with information to identify the precise locations of seagrass beds, which play a vital role in storing ‘blue carbon’.

Other examples of the use of hydrographic data collected include work to identify areas most at risk from rising sea levels and an increase in storm events. Seabed mapping data has already been used to identify a steep underwater cliff that would have jeopardised the long-term structural integrity of a proposed pipeline.

For defence, geospatial intelligence can provide a winning edge. It enhances situational awareness for dived and surface vessels, as well as amphibious craft and maritime air platforms. This enables maximum exploitation of the marine environment and littoral zone and gives an increased chance of successful outcomes in emergency, military and humanitarian endeavours.

Continuing to lead

Since the first Admiralty chart was produced in 1800, developments such as the echo sounder in the 1930s, imaging sonar in the 1960s and multibeam sonars and Lidar systems in the 1980s and 1990s respectively have brought significant advances in hydrography. Technology delivers an increasingly accurate view of the seabed, and the UKHO continues to seek out opportunities to advance accessibility to that data.

Most recently, a new Seabed Mapping Service, accessed by an app, has become a fully fit-for-purpose, 21st-century digital data archive for the UK as a whole, and for marine academia, public and private sector communities to use, free of charge.

Through this and the establishment of the UK CSM, the UKHO continues to act as a custodian and enabler of the most accessible, advanced and cleansed bathymetry data sets.