Satellite Observations Revealed Thousands of New Mountains Right Here on Earth

There are thousands of mountains dotting the sea floor

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A new gravity map shows the details of the sea floor Scripps Institution of Oceanography / European Space Agency

In the satellite era,  for the first time in human history, we have a pretty good idea about what's going on everywhere on Earth, all the time. Nothing stays hidden for long—nothing big, anyway. That's why it's so surprising that scientists, yesterday, described thousands of previously unknown mountains—each nearly a mile tall, at the shortest.

The mountains were able to stay hidden because they're on the bottom of the ocean. Using a satellite-borne sensor that looks for subtle variations of the height of the surface of the ocean, researchers were able to determine the shape of the bottom of the ocean and reveal its peaks and valleys in unprecedented detail.

A previous, similar map, says Jonathan Amos for the BBC, was able to see peaks larger than 2 kilometers, or 1.24 miles. The new observations bring that minimum size down to 1.5 kilometers, or 0.93 miles. The BBC:

"That might not sound like a huge improvement but the number of seamounts goes up exponentially with decreasing size."

"So, we may be able to detect another 25,000 on top of the 5,000 already known," the Scripps Institution of Oceanography researcher explained.

These mountains are a congregation point for undersea life, which, the BBC suggests, means that better mountain maps could improve our ability to manage fisheries; they could also help climate scientists understand how heat moves through the oceans. Hidden under the water, they are not, however, particularly good prospects for human mountaineers.

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