Seabed

Map showing the underwater topography (bathymetry) of the ocean floor. Like land terrain, the ocean floor has mountains including volcanoes, ridges, valleys, and plains.

The seabed (also known as the seafloor, sea floor, ocean floor, and ocean bottom) is the bottom of the ocean. All floors of the ocean are known as 'seabeds'.

Most of the oceans have a common structure, created by common physical phenomena, mainly from tectonic movement, and sediment from various sources. The structure of the oceans, starting with the continents, begins usually with a continental shelf, continues to the continental slope – which is a steep descent into the ocean, until reaching the abyssal plain – a topographic plain, the beginning of the seabed, and its main area. The border between the continental slope and the abyssal plain usually has a more gradual descent, and is called the continental rise, which is caused by sediment cascading down the continental slope.

The mid-ocean ridge, as its name implies, is a mountainous rise through the middle of all the oceans, between the continents. Typically a rift runs along the edge of this ridge. Along tectonic plate edges there are typically oceanic trenches – deep valleys, created by the mantle circulation movement from the mid-ocean mountain ridge to the oceanic trench.

Hotspot volcanic island ridges are created by volcanic activity, erupting periodically, as the tectonic plates pass over a hotspot. In areas with volcanic activity and in the oceanic trenches there are hydrothermal vents – releasing high pressure and extremely hot water and chemicals into the typically freezing water around it.

Deep ocean water is divided into layers or zones, each with typical features of salinity, pressure, temperature and marine life, according to their depth. Lying along the top of the abyssal plain is the abyssal zone, whose lower boundary lies at about 6,000 m (20,000 ft). The hadal zone – which includes the oceanic trenches, lies between 6,000–11,000 metres (20,000–36,000 ft) and is the deepest oceanic zone.

Depth below seafloor is a vertical coordinate used in geology, paleontology, oceanography, and petrology (see ocean drilling). The acronym "mbsf" (meaning "meters below the seafloor") is a common convention used for depths below the seafloor.[1][2]

Sediments in the seabed vary diversely in their origin, from eroded land materials carried into the ocean by rivers or wind flow, waste and decompositions of sea animals, and precipitation of chemicals within the sea water itself, including some from outer space.[3] There are four basic types of sediment of the sea floor: 1.) "Terrigenous" describes the sediment derived from the materials eroded by rain, rivers, glaciers and that which is blown into the ocean by the wind, such as volcanic ash. 2.) Biogenous material is the sediment made up of the hard parts of sea animals that accumulate on the bottom of the ocean. 3.) Hydrogenous sediment is the dissolved material that precipitates in the ocean when oceanic conditions change, and 4.) cosmogenous sediment comes from extraterrestrial sources. These are the components that make up the seafloor under their genetic classifications.

Terrigenous sediment is the most abundant sediment found on the seafloor, followed by biogenous sediment. The sediment in areas of the ocean floor which is at least 30% biogenous materials is labeled as an ooze. There are two types of oozes: Calcareous oozes and Siliceous oozes. Plankton is the contributor of oozes. Calcareous oozes are predominantly composed of calcium shells found in phytoplankton such as coccolithophores and zooplankton like the foraminiferans. These calcareous oozes are never found deeper than about 4,000 to 5,000 meters because at further depths the calcium dissolves.[4] Similarly, Siliceous oozes are dominated by the siliceous shells of phytoplankton like diatoms and zooplankton such as radiolarians. Depending on the productivity of these planktonic organisms, the shell material that collects when these organisms die may build up at a rate anywhere from 1mm to 1 cm every 1000 years.[4]

Hydrogenous sediments are uncommon. They only occur with changes in oceanic conditions such as temperature and pressure. Rarer still are cosmogenous sediments. Hydrogenous sediments are formed from dissolved chemicals that precipitate from the ocean water, or along the mid-ocean ridges, they can form by metallic elements binding onto rocks that have water of more than 300 °C circulating around them. When these elements mix with the cold sea water they precipitate from the cooling water.[4] Known as manganese nodules, they are composed of layers of different metals like manganese, iron, nickel, cobalt, and copper, and they are always found on the surface of the ocean floor.[4] Cosmogenous sediments are the remains of space debris such as comets and asteroids, made up of silicates and various metals that have impacted the Earth.[5]

Another way that sediments are described is through their descriptive classification. These sediments vary in size, anywhere from 1/4096 of a mm to greater than 256 mm. The different types are: boulder, cobble, pebble, granule, sand, silt, and clay, each type becoming finer in grain. The grain size indicates the type of sediment and the environment in which it was created. Larger grains sink faster and can only be pushed by rapid flowing water (high energy environment) whereas small grains sink very slowly and can be suspended by slight water movement, accumulating in conditions where water is not moving so quickly.[6] This means that larger grains of sediment may come together in higher energy conditions and smaller grains in lower energy conditions.

Benthos is the community of organisms which live on, in, or near the seabed, the area known as the benthic zone.[7] This community lives in or near marine sedimentary environments, from tidal pools along the foreshore, out to the continental shelf, and then down to the abyssal depths. The benthic zone is the ecological region on, in and immediately above the seabed, including the sediment surface and some sub-surface layers. Benthos generally live in close relationship with the substrate bottom, and many such organisms are permanently attached to the bottom. The superficial layer of the soil lining the given body of water, the benthic boundary layer, is an integral part of the benthic zone, and greatly influences the biological activity which takes place there. Examples of contact soil layers include sand bottoms, rocky outcrops, coral, and bay mud.

Each area of the seabed has typical features such as common soil composition, typical topography, salinity of water layers above it, marine life, magnetic direction of rocks, and sedimentation.

Seabed topography is flat where sedimentation is heavy and covers the tectonic features. Sediments comes from various sources:

Where sedimentation is very light, such as in the Atlantic ocean, especially in the northern and eastern Atlantic, the original tectonic activity can be clearly seen as straight line "cracks" or "vents" thousands of kilometers long.[original research?]

Marine life is abundant in the deep sea, especially around hydrothermal vents. Large deep sea communities of marine life have been discovered around black and white smokers—vents emitting chemicals toxic to humans and most vertebrates. This marine life receives its energy both from the extreme temperature difference (typically a drop of 150 degrees) and from chemosynthesis by bacteria.

Brine pools are another seabed feature,[8] usually connected to cold seeps.

A video describing the operation and use of an autonomous lander in deep sea research.

The seabed has been explored by submersibles such as Alvin and, to some extent, scuba divers with special equipment. The process that continually adds new material to the ocean floor is seafloor spreading and the continental slope. In recent years satellite images show a very clear mapping of the seabed, and are used extensively in the study and exploration of the ocean floor.

In 2020 scientists created what may be the first scientific estimate of how much microplastic currently resides in Earth's seafloor, after investigating six areas of ~3 km depth ~300 km off the Australian coast. They found the highly variable microplastic counts to be proportionate to plastic on the surface and the angle of the seafloor slope. By averaging the microplastic mass per cm3, they estimated that Earth's seafloor contains ~14 million tons of microplastic – about double the amount they estimated based on data from earlier studies – despite calling both estimates "conservative" as coastal areas are known to contain much more microplastic pollution. These estimates are about one to two times the amount of plastic thought – per Jambeck et al., 2015 – to currently enter the oceans annually.[9][10][11]

Deep sea mining is a growing subfield of experimental seabed mining that involves the retrieval of minerals and deposits from the ocean floor found at depths of 200 meters or greater.[12][13] As of 2021, the majority of marine mining efforts are limited to shallow coastal waters only, where sand, tin and diamonds are more readily accessible.[14] There are three types of deep sea mining that have generated great interest: polymetallic nodule mining, polymetallic sulphide mining, and the mining of cobalt-rich ferromanganese crusts.[15] The majority of proposed deep sea mining sites are near of polymetallic nodules or active and extinct hydrothermal vents at 1,400 to 3,700 metres (4,600 to 12,100 ft) below the ocean’s surface.[16] The vents create globular or massive sulfide deposits, which contain valuable metals such as silver, gold, copper, manganese, cobalt, and zinc.[17][18] The deposits are mined using either hydraulic pumps or bucket systems that take ore to the surface to be processed.

Marine minerals include sea-dredged and seabed minerals. Sea-dredged minerals are normally extracted by dredging operations within coastal zones, to maximum sea depths of about 200 m. Minerals normally extracted from these depths include sand, silt and mud for construction purposes, mineral rich sands such as ilmenite and diamonds.[19]

As with all mining operations, deep sea mining raises questions about its potential environmental impact. Environmental advocacy groups such as Greenpeace and the Deep Sea Mining Campaign[20] have argued that seabed mining should not be permitted in most of the world's oceans because of the potential for damage to deep sea ecosystems and pollution by heavy metal-laden plumes.[17] Prominent environmental activists and state leaders have also called for moratoriums or total bans due to the potential of devastating environmental impacts.[21][22] Some argue that there should be a total ban on seabed mining.[23] Some anti-seabed mining campaigns have won the support of large industry such as some of the technology giants, and large car companies. However, these same companies will be increasingly reliant on the metals seabed minerals can provide. Some scientists argue that seabed mining should not go ahead, as we know such a relatively small amount about the biodiversity of the deep ocean environment.[24] Individual  countries with significant deposits of seabed minerals within their large EEZ’s are making their own decisions with respect to seabed mining, exploring ways of undertaking seabed mining without causing too much damage to the deep ocean environment,[25] or deciding not to develop seabed mines.[26]

Some children's play songs include elements such as "There's a hole at the bottom of the sea", or "A sailor went to sea... but all that he could see was the bottom of the deep blue sea".

On and under the seabed are archaeological sites of historic interest, such as shipwrecks and sunken towns. This underwater cultural heritage is protected by the . The convention aims at preventing looting and the destruction or loss of historic and cultural information by providing an international legal framework.[29]