This Is What The Bottom of The Ocean Looks Like

New 3D prints of undersea sand can help predict storm effects

3D Printed Map of the Seafloor

3D Printed Map of the Seafloor

A detail of a researcher's 3D-printed model of a section from Redbird Reef, located off the Delaware coastline.Evan Krape / University of Delaware

While Google continues to map our world and our phones can give us instantaneous directions, it seems like there are no undiscovered corners of the globe. But there's actually a huge area we don't know very much about: less than 0.05 percent of the ocean floor has been directly mapped.

Now researchers at the University of Delaware are working to map one section of the seafloor, creating 3D printed maps to study the ripples and ridges on the continental shelf.

The 3D-printed maps are created with bathymetric sonar images and other data taken of the seafloor, an advancement from traditional 2D mapping. The researchers are using a system, which they call the fingerprint algorithm, to study the formations.

Studying the length and height of the ripples can give clues to the effects of past storms, and hopefully help predict the effects of future storms.

"We can actually see how the seafloor evolves through time."

When storms travel over water, their waves create movement on the ocean floor, formations called ripple bedforms. The theories go that the larger the distance of the waves, the larger the distance of the ripples. These ripples create a fingerprint or signature of storms past.

By linking ripple patterns to specific storms, the researchers can show what the ripples mean for what storms will do, like how much beachfront erosion or storm surge they will cause. It also can show how the continental shelf evolves over time by studying the same area.

"Here we're able to come out repeatedly and actually see a time series," said co-author Art Trembanis in a press release. "So we can actually see how the seafloor evolves through time."

The researchers focused on ripple areas in the Redbird Reef off the coast of the Indian River Inlet in Delaware. The reef is a manmade area of old subway cars, tugboats, tires and military tract vehicles that provide habitat for various aquatic communities.

The study is part of a greater project lead by Trembanis of the reef and sponsored by the Office of Naval Research.