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Space Technology Puts Oceans in Focus

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November 27, 2001 -- A new atlas out this fall details and charts a part of the world mapmakers usually neglect -- the 70 percent of the world covered by water. The National Geographic Atlas of the Ocean is the first to use the remote sensing technology of satellites in its quest to make the most accurate depiction of a region most mapmakers are content to leave blue.

For Radio Expeditions, NPR's Alex Chadwick talks with marine biologist and conservationist Sylvia Earle, who led the project, about the idea behind the atlas.

There have been maps of the seas before, and certainly there are navigational charts, but this is the first atlas to employ technology from the space agency NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The U.S. Navy helped, too, making some of its Cold War underwater acoustic imaging capability available to scientists. The result, says Earle, depicts the oceans better than has been possible -- and in a way the subject deserves.

"It isn't just rocks and water, it's a living system that generates oxygen, absorbs carbon dioxide, is home for most of life on Earth," she says. "So much of this planet is dominated by the sea ... that some say we really ought to call Earth not Earth, but Ocean.

"Water is magic. We are absolutely and totally dependent on the existence of water. Our own bodies are some 70 percent water. Chemical reactions as we know them would simply be impossible without this aquatic medium in which these processes occur. We should never, never take water for granted."

Other Resources

audio icon Listen to Alex Chadwick's 1999 expedition, Diving with Deepworker

Visit National Geographic's Sustainable Seas Web site

Learn more about the ocean -- and the Sustainable Seas expedition -- at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration Ocean Explorer site

Learn about NASA's ocean exploration program and see satellite images at its Oceanography site

Learn more about the Deepworker submarine

Visit the National Marine Sanctuaries site

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Photo: Sylvia Earle/National Geographic Society, 2001

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