Global Distribution of Seamounts from Seasat Profiles

Craig, CH, Sandwell DT.  1988.  Global Distribution of Seamounts from Seasat Profiles. Journal of Geophysical Research-Solid Earth and Planets. 93:10408-10420.

Date Published:



Bathymetry profiles and contour charts have been used to study the distribution of seamounts in the deep ocean basins, but only a small fraction of the seafloor has been sampled by ships. At the present exploration rate it will take several centuries to map significant portions of the seafloor topography. Satellite altimetry, which maps the topography of the equipotential sea surface, is a promising tool for studying the gravity fields of seamounts because all ocean basins can be sampled in a couple of years. Using a model of a Gaussian-shaped seamount loading a thin elastic lithosphere, we develop a new technique for measuring basic characteristics of a seamount from a single satellite altimeter profile. The model predicts that the seamount diameter is equal to the peak-to-trough distance along the vertical deflection profile and that the overall diameter of the signature reveals the age of the lithosphere when the seamount formed. Moreover, the model suggests that these two measurements are relatively insensitive to the cross-track location of the seamount. We confirm these model predictions using Seasat altimeter profiles crossing 14 well surveyed seamounts in the Pacific. We then apply the measurement technique to 26 × 106 million kilometers of Seasat profiles resulting in a new global set of seamount locations. Approximately one quarter of the seamounts identified in Seasat profiles were previously uncharted. Modeling suggests that there is no direct relationship between the size of a seamount and its signature in the geoid; therefore the set of locations is not a straightforward sampling of the total seamount population, but is weighted toward seamounts which are poorly compensated. A preliminary analysis indicates considerable variations in population density and type across the oceans; most notable among them are the absence of seamounts in the Atlantic, variations in population density across large age-offset fracture zones in the Pacific, the prevalence of small signatures in the Indian Ocean, and the existence of linear trends in the large seamounts of the west Pacific.