My story Monday on Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientist David Sandwell’s contribution to the new version of Google Earth, which includes simulated oceans, talked a little about how he used previously classified satellite data collected by the Navy to help build his global map of the ocean floor.

What it didn’t talk about was the trove of data that is still classified, data that Sandwell says would significantly enhance the detail and accuracy of ocean mapping.

As I wrote in my story, Sandwell built his maps using a combination of ship sonar readings and method called satellite altimetry, which infers ocean bottom’s topography via satellite measurements of the bumps and dips on the ocean’s surface. The measurements came courtesy of a satellite the Navy launched in 1985 after it realized that it would have to measure the tilt of the earth in order to accurately fire nuclear missiles from submarines.

The satellite data Sandwell used was declassified in 1995 at the behest of Medea, a group of about 60 scientists gathered by then-Vice President Al Gore to advise U.S. intelligence agencies on how secret government data can be used to further knowledge of the environment. Here is a 1995 New York Times story that details the whole thing.

From the story:

Dr. Edward C. Whitman, technical director of the Office of the Oceanographer of the Navy, said perhaps 95 percent of the Navy’s physical data would eventually be made public. Studies that weigh the risks and benefits to national security are nearly complete, he said, adding that there is little or no chance of foot dragging.

“There’s a lot of pressure on the Navy to release this stuff coming from the very highest levels of the Government,” Dr. Whitman said in an interview. “And that will move us to make a decision.”

Some of the data are considered sensitive because they reveal information of military importance like the exact routes of warships and submarines and disclose patrol zones and patterns. In other cases, the public release of data acquired inconspicuously in the coastal waters of foreign nations might prove embarrassing.

The Navy says it is considering ways to make the public release as large as possible, in some cases by declassifying only data summaries or data from certain geographic regions.

Presumably some of the data were gathered by submarines that trespassed into territorial waters of friendly and unfriendly states, though the Navy admits no such thing. These nations may be appalled by the public release of data about their submerged territories, yet in theory such information could be a potential gold mine available at no cost, courtesy of the United States Navy.

The Navy’s oceanographic data holdings are so rich and varied that they are expected to advance many fields beyond environmental studies, including geology, climatology, weather forecasting, pollution studies, marine engineering, commercial fisheries management and deep oil and mineral exploration.

One still-classified dataset would be particularly valuable to Sandwell’s research. It is the results ship surveys of the ocean floor done by the Navy during the cold war. Currently, only about 10 percent of the seafloor is mapped through ship sonar readings. If the Navy would release this data Sandwell estimates that he would be able to provide more detailed maps of as much as a third of the world’s oceans. Here is a graphic Sandwell gave me that shows parts of the oceans that the Navy has and hasn’t surveyed.


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