Among our most crucial decisions is where on the seafloor to drop our seismometers. Geometrically, the task is not unlike dropping them from an airplane at 3-6 km altitude, hoping that they will land in a suitable spot. Some luck is needed, because the seafloor is not mapped down to the meter scale, and because ocean currents can carry the OBS away laterally by several hundreds of meters before they reach the seafloor.
However, careful preparation can maximize the chances of a successful landing. The most basic requirement: the instrument should be recoverable when called to return to the surface – that may not be possible if it landed in a crevasse or tumbled over on a steep slope. Hence we seek out relatively flat spots of at least 1 km2 area. Such places can be found even in (underwater) mountain ranges, but dropping an OBS there requires more preparation than on a vast abyssal plain.
The other morning we had a challenging case, a targeted OBS site on the steep flank of the Mascarene plateau. The only prior bathymetry information came from "Sandwell", a jargon referring to maps extrapolated from measurements of gravity satellites – very smoothed and blurry sea-scapes compared to reality, but much better than nothing (see annotated map). "Sandwell" suggested a little flat embayment in the plateau flank, but as we approached, the highly-resolving ship bathymeter gradually revealed a steeply incised canyon, 2800 m beneath the surface. No sediments to flatten out even a small area. We collectively pondered the evolving scene, and imagined mud avalanches rushing down the canyon channel. Fact or fiction? No way to tell. It seemed unwise to drop the OBS there.
With not many options available, we targeted a small protruding ledge a few miles up-flank on Sandwell's map. The approach was steep and unpromising, but suddenly sediments started showing up on the screen of the sediment sounder. The saddle area turned out to be narrower and shifted compared to the Sandwell prediction, but 1.5 miles wide and reasonably flat seemed lucky under the circumstances. We dropped the OBS above the likely equivalent of an Alpine meadow, bounded by a steeply incised mountain stream, perhaps with bottom-dwelling fish instead of grazing cows. It had taken us two hours, but had also satisfied our curiosity. Expert bathymetrist Jérôme summed it up: "Interesting – so that's what a canyon may look like for Sandwell."
* Picture Caption :
Annotated map describing an OBS deployment (station RR17). Before our arrival, we had only the blurry bathymetric information that fills most of the picture (“Sandwell”, extrapolated from gravity satellite measurements). In real time, we replaced a ~10 km wide swath beneath our ship track with the ship’s own, more highly resolving measurements (top left to bottom right). It revealed that the seafloor in this area was not smooth at all – it took some cruising to find even a small flat spot.