The dark area, nicknamed the “Tongue of the Ocean,” is part of the Great Bahama submarine canyon. Credit: Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

How Do Submarine and Terrestrial Canyons Compare?

Insights from a new study could spark discoveries about Martian landscapes and also help researchers get to the bottom of canyon formation here on Earth.

Because Earth’s land and submarine canyons look similar, researchers have traditionally surmised that they formed through similar processes. Evaluating that assumption has proven difficult, however, due largely to lack of data. “Scientists have more high-resolution imagery of the surface of Mars than of Earth’s ocean floor,” according to one recent statement.

Stephen Dobbs, a Ph.D. candidate in geological sciences at Stanford University, explained the shortage of high-resolution imagery and data for submarine canyons. While orbiting satellites can readily collect high-resolution topographic data of Mars, similar satellites can collect bathymetric data for Earth’s oceans on only about a kilometer scale of resolution. Laborious and expensive processes requiring the use of ships and autonomous underwater vehicles must often be used to image the seafloor, he added.

As detailed in a new study published in Geology, Dobbs and his collaborators used open-source multibeam sonar data, along with topographic data, to compare land and underwater canyons. The study came out of a student-run seminar directed by George Hilley, a tectonic geomorphologist, and Tim McHargue, a deepwater sedimentologist and marine geologist, both also at Stanford.

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