Piecing Together the Puzzle of Australian Seabed Data

A new ARDC-supported platforms project, GMRT-AusSeabed, will help researchers and industry use Australia’s seabed data to better predict the future of our coasts and oceans.
The Great Barrier Reef

Banner image: The RV Falkor performing a seabed survey in the Great Barrier Reef. The data collected from this survey is just one of the puzzle pieces that needs to be fit together to make a map of the entire Great Barrier Reef. This map will help ships navigate safely through the reef and help with the management of the animals that live there. Image courtesy of Geoscience Australia.

Australia’s ocean floor is vast, the third largest exclusive economic zone in the world, yet only about 25% of our ocean floor is mapped to a resolution that is useful to manage our marine estate.

“The data [about our seabed] we have is all stored in fragmented puzzle pieces, but they all don’t quite fit together and all belong to different people,” says Kim Picard, Marine Geoscientist at Geoscience Australia and lead for the new Australian Research Data Commons (ARDC) co-investment project ‘Global Multi-Resolution Topography (GMRT) for Australian coastal and ocean models’, or ‘GMRT-AusSeabed’ for short.

“Once you find the data, there’s a lot of time spent processing it and harmonising it so you can put it into this puzzle.”

That’s where the new ARDC co-investment project will help Australian researchers and industry. It will enable the end-users to create their own seabed puzzle by bringing together the data stored in the AusSeabed Data Hub, the national seabed mapping coordination program led by Geoscience Australia, which is bringing together data from various locations and formats to create the best repository for Australian seabed data.

One component of mapping the seabed is measuring its height and shape, known as bathymetry. It has many uses, from modelling coastal storm surge and erosion, to assessing biodiversity conservation opportunities and finding fishing grounds and safe shipping routes. It is an expensive process that requires specialist technology, so leveraging off a one-stop-shop to produce the best seabed bathymetry model at the time will aid in our understanding of Australia’s coastlines and seafloors, and have huge benefits to research and industry.

Partnering to Make seabed Data More Accessible

The project will see Geoscience Australia partner with the Bureau of Meteorology, James Cook University, Deakin University, CSIRO, the Australian Antarctic Division of the Australian Government’s Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in the US.

“Through the ARDC co-investment, we’re going to leverage off what we’ve already achieved through AusSeabed through the collaboration of our stakeholders, who are ready to bring the data together and eliminate the barrier to end users so they can use the seabed data that’s out there,” says Kim.

Once the data is put together, researchers will have the opportunity to assess what is there and what we need to do next, and answer questions like “How do we map the rest of it? How do we assure ourselves that what we have is actually accurate and up to par?” explains Kim.

The new platform will also enable more people to use the data.

“We’re expert users, so we know how to do things with the data,” says Kim. “But if you’re an end user from a different field [of research], this is a problem as you don’t have the expertise to bring the data together and analyse it.”

The cost associated with using seabed data can therefore be prohibitive. GMRT-AusSeabed will make it easy for non-experts to access, manipulate and analyse Australia’s seabed data using an adapted version of the Global Multi-Resolution Topography (GMRT).
GMRT is a well-established technology and workflow for compiling seabed data layers from a range of sources and surveys to show the most high-resolution view of the seabed available and is accessible via internet browsers. Some GMRT maps have been used as the base map for Google Earth since 2011.

GMRT-AusSeabed will also be built to connect to other platforms, such as EcoCommons, which will mean more ways to access this valuable data platform of Australia’s seabed, saving researchers a lot of time and effort.

Uncovering Where Our Coasts Are at Risk

Quality seabed data is essential for the coastal and marine modelling community, helping them to predict the impact of storm surges and tsunamis on Australia’s vast coastline.

Paul Branson, Coastal Research Scientist at CSIRO and the University of Western Australia, says, “The GMRT-AusSeabed project will give me access to seamless maps of coastal and ocean bathymetry, saving me, my students, and coastal professionals potentially many days of technically challenging work for each study site.”

“Having a centralised national portal for seabed data really unlocks the door for improved national scale assessment for things like coastal flooding and erosion hazards, and importantly understanding the resilience and capacity of our coastal blue carbon ecosystems to provide coastal protection and act as a sink for carbon dioxide.”

“As a professional coastal engineer, I’m often asked by coastal managers “Where did the sand go?” Soon I hope that GMRT-AusSeabed can help answer that question.”

International Collaboration

Through the partnership with US-based Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in the GMRT-AusSeabed project, Australia will be contributing to the international community, ensuring researchers from across the world can utilise our seabed data, collaborate, and create models to predict the future state of our oceans and coastlines.

“Because we’re partnering with 6 other organisations, we are ensuring broad national and international knowledge is brought together to bring Australia one-step further. What we’re doing together is going to have a global influence,” says Kim.

GMRT-AusSeabed was successful in the most recent ARDC open call for co-investment in platform infrastructure, which aims to increase the number and diversity of Australian researchers with ongoing access to national digital research infrastructure.

Visit AusSeabed to sign up for their mailing list and keep up to date with the GMRT-AusSeabed project.

AusSeabed is calling for nominations for their steering committee — learn what’s involved. Applications close 24 May 2021.

The Australian Research Data Commons (ARDC) is funded through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) to provide Australian researchers with a competitive advantage through data.