Monday, 10 August 2015 14:52

Artificial intelligence, Big Data used for seafloor geology mapping

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Artificial intelligence, Big Data used for seafloor geology mapping Image courtesy of cooldesign, freedigitalphotos.net/images

National ICT Australia (NICTA) and the University of Sydney have collaborated to create the first digital map of seafloor sediments using artificial intelligence (AI) and big data.

The collaboration has seen development of a computer algorithm to turn 15,000 seafloor sediment observations into a continuous digital map.

Dr. Simon O’Callaghan, lead researcher at NICTA, says the new digital seafloor geology map was created using an “artificial intelligence method called ‘support vector machine’ designed to learn how different types of deep marine sediments are juxtaposed.”

“The new map completely changes our understanding of the geology of the ocean floor.”

Dr O’Callaghan points out that ocean sediments cover 70% of our planet’s surface, forming the substrate for the largest ecosystem on Earth and its largest carbon reservoir – but the most recent map of seafloor geology was drawn by hand over 40 years ago, at the dawn of modern ocean exploration.

The lead researcher at the University of Sydney Dr. Adriana Dutkiewicz said that “the difference between the new and old map is a little like comparing a barren tundra landscape with an exotic tropical paradise full of diversity. The ocean floor used to be portrayed as a monotonous seascape whereas the new map echoes the colourful patchworks of dreamtime art.

“The deep ocean floor is a graveyard with much of it made up of microscopic sea creatures called phytoplankton, whose dead remains rain down through the water column like ‘marine snow’. The composition of their shells is used to decipher how our oceans have responded to past climate change.”

Dr Dutkiewicz says that microscopic marine organisms play a critical role in the global carbon cycle, but many of the mechanisms that are thought to control the geologic accumulation of the phytoplankton carbonate and silica shells are very difficult to quantify.

But, Dr Dutkiewicz said the new digital map of seafloor sediments provides a missing link for constraining global relationships between the seafloor and the sea-surface.

“Big data technologies, paired with old and new data, now allow us to better predict the impact changing climate and ecosystems may have on the life cycle of phytoplankton, by jointly analysing a multitude of sea surface and seafloor observations,” said Dr. O’Callaghan

 “Now that Australia has a brand-new marine research vessel, the Investigator, the new seafloor data set opens the door to future voyages aimed at better understanding the workings and history of the marine carbon cycle.”

The interactive seafloor globe can be viewed on any browser on smartphones, tablets or computers by clicking here.


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Peter Dinham

Peter Dinham - retired in 2020. He is a veteran journalist and corporate communications consultant. He has worked as a journalist in all forms of media – newspapers/magazines, radio, television, press agency and now, online – including with the Canberra Times, The Examiner (Tasmania), the ABC and AAP-Reuters. As a freelance journalist he also had articles published in Australian and overseas magazines. He worked in the corporate communications/public relations sector, in-house with an airline, and as a senior executive in Australia of the world’s largest communications consultancy, Burson-Marsteller. He also ran his own communications consultancy and was a co-founder in Australia of the global photographic agency, the Image Bank (now Getty Images).

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