Mapping new worlds
  • | BBC | September 23, 2012 09:26 AM

Volunteer spelunkers and local researchers are mapping new portions of Mammoth Cave, in Kentucky. (Danita Delimont/Gallo/Getty)

It’s hard to believe that there are still places on this planet that have yet to be fully explored and understood. But a number of innovative mapping projects are working to discover the few uncharted spaces left on Earth.

Recording the geography of these remote areas – collecting data and images along the way – provides more insight into the world around us. The following are some of the coolest recent and ongoing mapping projects aiding in that mission.

Cave diving into the unknown
In western Kentucky, the Cave Research Foundation is a group of volunteer spelunkers who work with local researchers to map new portions of Mammoth Cave, the longest cave system on Earth. The data recorded from charting the cave has enabled studies on the underground environment of Mammoth -- its passageways hiding networks of stalactites, stalagmites, rivers, streams and other geological formations -- and on the more than 70 wildlife species that call that environment home, including such endangered animals as Indiana bats and Kentucky cave shrimp. So far, more than 390 miles of the cave have been mapped.

Mammoth Cave National Park provides a variety of tours through the cave’s mysterious passageways. The Introduction to Caving tour takes groups spelunking in certain parts of the cave system. Though no experience is needed, the tour lasts three-and-a-half hours and covers two miles, including 280 climbing stairs and some stretches including crawlspaces. Serious cave enthusiasts can contact the Cave Research Foundation about volunteering to help survey new sections of the cave.

Google Street View visits the Arctic
Google Street View, the Google Maps team that photographs panoramas around the world and overlays them on online maps, sent a camera-equipped tricycle (and rider) to the Canadian Arctic for one of its latest mapping projects, which began in August. The team hopes to give global exposure to the Inuit culture of the remote Cambridge Bay village, hidden in the Nanavut territory of the Canadian Arctic. Only accessible by boat or plane, Cambridge Bay is a community of about 1,500 people and only a few gravel roads. But the project will also be a chance to map the area’s landscape – including rivers, lakes and other sites of natural and historic importance, such as shipwrecks, churches and Mount Pelly mountain – on a minute level. This builds on Street View’s street mapping of Antarctica, gaining Google Maps the distinction of reaching all seven continents in 2010.

If virtual travel is not enough, adventurers in search of pristine wilderness can visit Nanavut themselves. The territory can be reached by plane from Montreal or Ottawa (though the airfare won’t be cheap). Cambridge Bay is accessible via Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories.

Mapping the Arctic seafloor
About 10 years ago, scientists began mapping the floor of the Barents Sea, off the coast of Norway in the Arctic Circle. By the end of this year, they will have mapped out about 33,000 square miles. Like the cave divers in Kentucky, these researchers are discovering previously unknown places in an atmosphere foreign to most humans. Their hordes of data include information on the sea’s biodiversity, the seabed’s topography and on environmental impacts present, such as pollution. Thus far, they have discovered new species, such as worm-like beings called polychaetes, and new cold-water coral reefs. In addition, one goal of the mission is to promote proper management of the sea, parts of which are used by Norway’s oil, fishing and shipping industries.

To get close to the action, some thrill-seekers scuba dive around this area in Lofoten, Norway. This video from Visit Norway shows divers exploring these waters, on the lookout for killer whales.  

Mapping the Mediterranean seafloor
A team of scientists is using lasers, cameras and advanced sonar technology to map the floor of the Mediterranean Sea, the Aegean Sea and the Black Sea off the coasts of Cyprus and Turkey. The most recent leg of the mission, carried out via an exploration vessel called the Nautilus, surveyed the massive Eratosthenes Seamount (an underwater mountain), which covers an area more than 120km long by 80km wide and stands 2,000m high. The expedition yielded evidence that this area may once have been an island above sea level, in addition to resulting in the discovery of three shipwrecks — two dating to the Ottoman Empire and one to the Hellenistic period; archaeologists have not yet examined found items such as a compass and one of the ship’s anchor.

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