Mapping for Science
Much like biologists create color-coded maps of the earth's different habitats, sanctuary staff are doing the same thing with the undersea world. There are still undiscovered regions and species yet to be identified. These maps give sanctuary managers information on seafloor characteristics and the different types of animals that live there. In essence, they show us what that world looks like.
|Figure 1 - Click for larger image|
Habitat characterization maps, as they are also called, help us understand the potential impacts from natural or human influences on the marine environment. The maps basically show us what the undersea world in our sanctuaries look like.
For example, figure 1 shows four major types of habitat within the boundaries (the red line) of East Flower Garden Bank. Each habitat is shown in a different color. Coral reef areas are colored olive green, coralline algae areas are in lime green, algal nodules are in red and deep corals are in blue. Different types of habitat may be able to tolerate different types and levels of stress, so it's important for managers to know where each type of habitat is located within the sanctuary.
Mapping expeditions in and around the Flower Garden Banks sanctuary have revealed that some reefs may be connected to other banks in the northern Gulf of Mexico through low reef ridges previously unknown. These "habitat highways" likely provide protection and foraging grounds for animals traveling between the various banks.
Figure 2 shows the series of banks outside the sanctuary. Scientists think that plant and animal populations probably move back and forth between all of these banks, either by traveling with the currents or by migrating along the low ridges that loosely connect them. Resource managers must consider how stresses on one or more banks will affect the plant and animal communities on other banks.
Figure 3 reveals a crescent shaped low relief reef between the East and West Flower Garden Banks and also a ridge leading away from the northeast corner of the east bank in a semi-circle shape, loosely connecting it with adjacent banks.
|Figure 2 - Click for larger image||Figure 3 - Click for larger image|
Similar mapping efforts off the California coast included a survey in the Cordell Bank sanctuary. The map generated from these surveys illustrates the terraces, ridges, channels and planes of the sanctuary in much greater detail than was previously available (Figure 4). Shallow areas are colored in red and yellow, and the deeper regions are in green and blue.
These detailed habitat maps will provide the foundation for identifying priority areas for future research projects.
|Figure 4 - Click for larger image|
The technology and ship time necessary to complete the expeditions were made possible through a variety of partnerships ranging from federal agencies, such as NOAA's Office of Ocean Exploration, U.S. Geological Survey and Minerals Management Service to academic institutions such as the National Undersea Research Center at University of North Carolina-Wilmington, to private industry such as the United Space Alliance, a contractor to NASA and the owner of the Liberty Star, a rocket booster recovery vessel.