Google earth goes underwater

Goggle Earth Goes underwater

This week amid a flurry of media coverage Goggle Earth issues an update, which allows viewers to navigate the deep-sea bed.

My own attempts - clumsy no doubt - to use this facility afford the exhilarating experience - and it is strangely physical  - of crashing down towards and through the sea’s surface into an environment which is strangely reminiscent of some of the undersea scapes I have been producing using the Erdas modelling software

What is strikes me most forcibly is level of visibility it assumes. In parallel I am editing some video footage shot at a depth of between 2,500 to 3,000 metres which makes evident the difficulty of seeing anything beyond that which might be illuminated by the beam of a Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) (an area of approx 9-16 sq metres). No horizon is visible confounding immediately one of the primary pictorial conventions of landscape. The other surprise perhaps is the constant stream of snow like debris that falls  through the water to rest on the bottom and which as soon as it is touched swirls up dramatically, obscuring the view. For me this powerfully evokes the depth involved while for the scientists I am working with it is a source of extreme frustration .

I remember when I was producing work in response to the site of a wrecked boat at Prawle Point  in Devon, putting the camera (see Above and Below this page) in waterproof a housing and allowing the tide to animate the camera as a means to embed within the work a trace of the circumstances in which it was made. By the same token this dark, awkward, footage excites me because of the echo it offers of the physical the space of the deep sea bed and the resitance it offers  to  the attemtp of the camera to reveal it.

Sitting in the video archive at National Oceanography Centre watching this footage I am awed by the hours and hours of tape held there, all of which must be painstakingly logged. I read the entries which record sightings of a purple anemone, small sponge, vase bug etc In this world, which is so vast and lacking in familiar landmarks a mussel shell serves as an provides an important point of orientation

Returning to Goggle Underwater I find myself thinking about the virtual world it conjures and the ways in which this in turn shapes our perception of the actual world. I can’t help feeling that despite the wealth of data on which it draws, Goggle Underwater represents a making of the world in our image, which is as much scenic as it is scientific.

Video shot at a depth of  2,500 - 3, 000 metres  Video
Video shot at a depth of 2,500 - 3, 000 metres
Google Earth Ocean floor
Google Earth Ocean floor
Footage shot with remotely operated vehicle - mid atlantic 3,000.00 metres  Video
Footage shot with remotely operated vehicle - mid atlantic 3,000.00 metres


Gave my introductory talk today. Despite my anxieties that my audience might feel alienated by the speculative nature of what I do and the fact that it has little to do with the acquisition of hard data, it seemed to go well. A number of points were raised, prompting discussion about different mapping conventions and the impact of these upon popular perceptions of different areas of land mass - Africa appearing much smaller than it is and Russia much bigger – the later being a significant factor in levels of American cold war paranoia, apparently.

At one point I mention my interest in the possibility of creating a globe, which inverts height and depth. Clive Boulter a structural geologist responded by saying that he frequently uses pseudoscopic techniques or reverse relief as a way of viewing terrestrial features. As he discusses the possibility with Tim of using a similar approach to model undersea environments I feel that I have perhaps in some small way facillitated a conversation that might not otherwise have happened.

Perhaps the most striking discussion was had later on the bus to the station. Bramley Murton was talking about the way in which at depth buoyancy counteracts gravity and how, seeing a small jelly fish swimming along at 30,000 metres below sea level, its tentacles splayed out to the sides, he had been prompted him to reflect on the extent to which while in terrestrial environments the fact that everything finally falls to the ground exerts a primary influence, in undersea environments it has a limited currency.

I am still pondering the implications of this conversation, immediately it made me think of the extent to which the notion of a return to earth fundamentally unpins our myths and beliefs and how profound a shift the idea of being buoyant represents to the ways in which we understand who we are.

Mean of the earth

Tim continues teaching the 3D modelling software he uses. Today our source was a bathythemetic map of the world. While showing me various functions he pointed out that the programme had calculated that in approximate terms the mean height / depth - depending on how you view it - of the Earth's surface is 1424 metres below sea level!

A statistic which for a moment held us both rapt, bringing home afresh the extent to which the sea, rather than earth, dominates the surface of the planet.

The most common height above sea level is 85 metres and the least 3,3800 metres below.

turning the world inside out

I have begun to learn the software Tim Le Bas, the scientist with who I am working, uses to model bathymetric data. I start with a map of the world, reversing the usual blue /green coloring of land and sea and going on to reverse height and depth. At one point I transform the Himalayas into a void – even then its hard to conceive of the fact that if Challenger Deep was turned inside out it would tower a mile higher than Everest!

Circling above the globe it is possible to change your viewpoint at will, turning the world upside down in a second, its amazing though how, once the familiar, western centric viewpoint of the Americas, Europe and Africa is displaced, hard it is to orientate at all. Left to my own devices I manage to produce a set of strange exaggerated, psychedelic landscapes, which look like covers for a Yes album. These and other experiments can be seen on the Maps/Models page

Reverse map of the world
Reverse map of the world

Marie Tharp

At coffee break someone mentions Marie Tharp describing her as an ‘artist who drew sections of the seabed’. Further research uncovers a cartographer and geologist, working in the fifties - a time when women were not allowed onto research vessels, who with a pen, ruler and data collected by her colleague, oceanographer Bruce Heezen, plotted the Mid-Oceanic Ridge, a line of undersea mountains that run along the sea bed between Europe/Africa and the Americas. An undertaking that laid the foundations for theories of plate tectonics and continental drift which were controversial until well into the 1960’s.

‘She wondered whether the depression was evidence of a continuous rift - a crack in the world - down the middle of the ridge. And … in turn whether that rift might be evidence of what scientists now call seafloor spreading, popularly known as continental drift. She and Mr. Heezen argued about it. She threw erasers and bottles of ink at him. It took him some time to come around. “I discounted it as girl talk and didn’t believe it for a year”

Many of the tributes to Tharp, who died in 2006, emphasize her fiery nature and powerful intuition observations which charecterise her achievements in a way that it is hard to imagine happening to a man, the later offering never the less a point of reference for my own less than rational approach.