"Over 90% of U.S. imports come in by ship," adds Mayer. "If these ships run aground or have a spill it's a problem detailed maps can prevent these accidents. It's important for safety and for the environment."
Mayer and his group are currently mapping unexplored areas of the Arctic. In 2003, his team found a seamount rising 3,000 meters from the ocean floor a navigational hazard that wasn't on any of the charts, despite high sub traffic in the area. The importance of this finding was highlighted last month, when the USS San Francisco a Navy attack submarine ran aground on an uncharted sea mount, killing one crew member and injuring dozens.
Mayer's team also uses 3D visualizations of the ocean floor to help managers, fishermen, and conservationists find new solutions for protecting resources. They brought scallop fishermen into their labs to "fly them through" a 3D, underwater image of their fishing grounds. "They'd known these areas for years, but now they could finally see it," says Mayer. The best of these fishermen recognized the seafloor they had been mentally visualizing, calling out pet names of familiar bumps where fish and shellfish congregate. Ironically, the new technology takes away the competitive edge of these experienced fishermen and makes it easier for a population to be overfished, but it can also create win-win situations. Fishermen can place their rakes exactly where the scallops are, reducing the number of damaging trawls along the bottom and allowing them to use lighter, more environmentally safe gear. They can also catch their quota in one quarter of the time, which could lead to fewer ship and fuel costs.