This scientist is on a mission to map the world’s oceans

We’ve imaged more of Mars than of our own planet’s seafloor. Ved Chirayath wants to change that.

About a decade ago, when Ved Chirayath learned that more than 90 percent of the planet’s seafloor remained unexplored, he was stunned. It was a stark contrast to the detailed maps of Mars and the moon he’d seen as an engineering graduate student developing devices to observe celestial bodies. Chirayath decided to apply techniques from space exploration to begin imaging the ocean. Baseline maps are vital, he says, because if we don’t know what’s there, we won’t know how to protect it.

Chirayath and student Stephanie Wright put the drone in launching configuration aboard their solar electric boat, which allows them to move around field sites and charge batteries with zero emissions.
Chirayath and student Stephanie Wright put the drone in launching configuration aboard their solar electric boat, which allows them to move around field sites and charge batteries with zero emissions.

There were big challenges: Sonar, commonly used to gather data from large swaths of the ocean, can’t provide high resolution, while satellite images can’t penetrate ocean depths and are distorted by waves. So the University of Miami professor and National Geographic Explorer created FluidCam, equipped with a specialized digital camera and software to “see” through water, and MiDAR, which adds high-intensity light. 

These tools, often carried by a drone, are helping his team map sea features to the centimeter in places such as Guam. Since 2020, citizen scientists have lent a hand by playing the NeMO-Net video game to spot coral reefs in a virtual ocean made from the images. The data will be used to train supercomputers that will one day map reefs around the globe.

The National Geographic Society has funded the work of Ved Chirayath since 2021. Learn more about its support of Explorers at natgeo.com/impact.

This story appears in the February 2023 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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