Giant Underwater Mountain: Thrice the Height of Burj Khalifa

The ocean is full of mysteries and surprises, and sometimes, even the most advanced technologies can miss them. That was the case with a giant underwater mountain that was recently discovered by scientists from the Schmidt Ocean Institute, a nonprofit organization dedicated to exploring and understanding the ocean.

How was the seamount discovered?

The underwater mountain, or seamount, is located in international waters off the coast of Guatemala, and it is estimated to be 2,681 meters (8,796 feet) tall. That makes it three times taller than the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, which stands at 828 meters (2,717 feet) in Dubai.

The seamount was found during an expedition by the research vessel Falkor (too), which was using a multibeam echosounder to map the seafloor. The echosounder sends sound waves in a fan-shaped pattern and measures the time it takes for them to bounce back from the ocean floor. By doing this, it can create a detailed picture of the seafloor’s shape and features.

The seamount was not included in any previous ocean depth databases, such as the General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO), which is considered to be the most authoritative source of global bathymetry data. The discovery was confirmed by hydrographers and marine technicians from the Schmidt Ocean Institute, who compared the echosounder data with satellite altimetry data.

Satellite altimetry measures the height of the ocean surface by bouncing radar signals off it. The height of the ocean surface is affected by the shape of the seafloor below it. A deep trench can cause a small depression, while a mountain can create a slight bump on top of the ocean.

“We were fortunate enough to be able to plan an opportunistic mapping route using these gravity anomalies in satellite altimetry data. Examining gravity anomalies is a fancy way of saying we looked for bumps on a map, and when we did, we located these very large seamounts while staying on schedule for our first science expedition in Chile at the start of this year,” said John Fulmer, one of the researchers, in a press release.

How many seamounts were found?

The seamount is one of four that were discovered by the Falkor (too) during its transit from Costa Rica to Chile. The other three range in size from 1,591 meters (5,220 feet) to 2,381 meters (7,812 feet) tall. Together, they cover an area of about 14 square kilometers (5.4 square miles).

The discovery of these seamounts adds to the impressive record of the Schmidt Ocean Institute, which has mapped about 1.5 million square kilometers (579,153 square miles) of the seafloor and discovered 29 seamounts since 2012.

Why are seamounts important?

Seamounts are important features of the ocean because they provide habitats for diverse marine life. They often host deep-sea coral reefs, sponges and anemones that live alongside fish, crustaceans and other organisms that find food, shelter and a rocky surface to cling to.

Seamounts also influence ocean currents and chemistry by creating turbulence and mixing water layers. They can also affect climate change by storing carbon dioxide in their sediments and rocks.

However, seamounts are also vulnerable to human activities such as fishing, mining and pollution. Many seamounts have been damaged or destroyed by bottom trawling, which drags heavy nets along the seafloor and scrapes off everything in its path.

Therefore, mapping and studying seamounts is crucial for their conservation and management. By knowing where they are and what they look like, scientists can better understand their role in the ocean ecosystem and their potential for sustainable use.

What is the significance of this discovery?

Dr. Jyotika Virmani, the executive director of Schmidt Ocean Institute, expressed her enthusiasm for the discovery and its implications.

“A seamount over 1.5 kilometers tall, which has until now been hidden under the waves really highlights how much we have yet to discover,” she said. “A comprehensive seafloor map is critical for understanding our planet – from predicting future climate change impacts to informing sustainable management practices – we are excited to be part of this new era where technology enables us to visualize aspects of our planet that have never been seen before.”

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