Draining the World’s Oceans to Visualize Earth’s Surface
Although many maps of our planet go into great topographical detail on land, almost two-thirds of the Earth’s surface is covered by the world’s oceans.
Hidden from sight lie aquatic mountain ranges, continental shelves, and trenches that dive deep into the Earth’s crust. We might be familiar with a few of the well-known formations on the ocean floor, but there’s a whole detailed “world” that’s as rich as the surface, just waiting to be explored.
This animation from planetary researcher James O’Donoghue of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and NASA simulates the draining the world’s oceans to quickly reveal the full extent of the Earth’s surface.
How Deep Does the Ocean Go?
Above sea level, Earth’s topography reaches all the way up to 8,849 meters (29,032 ft) to the top of Mt. Everest. But going below sea level, it actually goes deeper than the height of Everest.
Open ocean is called the pelagic zone, which can be broken down into five regions by depth:
- 0m–200m: Epipelagic (sunlight zone). Illuminated shallower waters that contain most of the ocean’s plants and animals.
- 200m–1,000m: Mesopelagic (twilight zone). Stretches from where 1% of surface light reaches to where surface light ends. Contains mainly bacteria, as well as some large organisms like the swordfish and the squid.
- 1,000m–4,000m: Bathypelagic (midnight zone). Pitch black outside of a few bioluminescent organisms, with no living plants. Smaller anglerfish, squid, and sharks live here, as well as a few large organisms like giant squid.
- 4,000m–6,000m: Abyssopelagic (abyssal zone). Long thought to be the bottomless end of the sea, the abyssal zone reaches to just above the ocean floor and contains little life due to extremely cold temperatures, high pressures, and complete darkness.
- 6,000m–11,000m: Hadopelagic (hadal zone). Named after Hades, the Greek god of the underworld, the hadal zone is the deepest part of the ocean. It can be found primarily in trenches below the ocean floor.
To put ocean depths into context, the bottom of the ocean is more than 2,000m greater than the peak of Mount Everest.
What “Draining” the World’s Oceans Reveals
For a long time, the ocean floor was believed to be less understood than the Moon.
The sheer depth of water made it difficult to map without newer technology, and the tremendous pressure and extreme temperatures make navigation grueling. A manned vehicle reached the deepest known point of the Mariana Trench—the Challenger Deep—in 1960, almost 90 years after it was first charted in 1872.
But over the last few decades, humanity’s understanding and exploration of the ocean floor has grown in leaps and bounds. O’Donoghue’s animation shows just how much detail we’ve been missing.
The first easily noticeable characteristic is the Earth’s continental shelves, which appear quickly. Most are visible by 140 meters, though the Arctic and Antarctic shelves are far deeper.
The animation then speeds up, as thousands of meters of depth reveal the tops of small mountain ridges and aquatic islands. From 2,000 to 3,000 meters, mid-ocean ridges appear that span the length of the Arctic, Pacific, and Indian oceans.
From 3,000 to 6,000 meters of ocean drained, these aquatic mountains slowly give way to the vast majority of the ocean floor. Little changes over the final 5,000 meters except to illustrate just how deep the ocean’s trenches reach.
Of course, technically the bottom of the Challenger deep is the deepest known point of the Mariana Trench. As satellite and imaging technology improves further, and aquatic mapping voyages become more possible, who knows what else we’ll discover beneath the waves.
This article was published as a part of Visual Capitalist's Creator Program, which features data-driven visuals from some of our favorite Creators around the world.
Visualizing the Abundance of Elements in the Earth’s Crust
The Earth’s crust makes up 1% of the planet’s volume, but provides all the material we use. What elements make up this thin layer we stand on?
Visualizing the Abundance of Elements in the Earth’s Crust
Elements in the Earth’s crust provide all the basic building blocks for mankind.
But even though the crust is the source of everything we find, mine, refine, and build, it really is just scratching the surface of our planet.
After all, the innermost layer of the Earth, the core, represents 15% of the planet’s volume, whereas the mantle occupies 84%. Representing the remaining 1% is the crust, a thin layer that ranges in depth from approximately 5-70 km (~3-44 miles).
This infographic takes a look at what elements make up this 1%, based on data from WorldAtlas.
Earth’s Crust Elements
The crust is a rigid surface containing both the oceans and landmasses. Most elements are found in only trace amounts within the Earth’s crust, but several are abundant.
The Earth’s crust comprises about 95% igneous and metamorphic rocks, 4% shale, 0.75% sandstone, and 0.25% limestone.
Oxygen, silicon, aluminum, and iron account for 88.1% of the mass of the Earth’s crust, while another 90 elements make up the remaining 11.9%.
|Rank||Element||% of Earth's Crust|
While gold, silver, copper and other base and precious metals are among the most sought after elements, together they make up less than 0.03% of the Earth’s crust by mass.
Oxygen is by far the most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, making up 46% of mass—coming up just short of half of the total.
Oxygen is a highly reactive element that combines with other elements, forming oxides. Some examples of common oxides are minerals such as granite and quartz (oxides of silicon), rust (oxides of iron), and limestone (oxide of calcium and carbon).
More than 90% of the Earth’s crust is composed of silicate minerals, making silicon the second most abundant element in the Earth’s crust.
Silicon links up with oxygen to form the most common minerals on Earth. For example, in most places, sand primarily consists of silica (silicon dioxide) usually in the form of quartz. Silicon is an essential semiconductor, used in manufacturing electronics and computer chips.
Aluminum is the third most common element in the Earth’s crust.
Because of its strong affinity for oxygen, aluminum is rarely found in its elemental state. Aluminum oxide (Al2O3), aluminum hydroxide (Al(OH)3) and potassium aluminum sulphate (KAl(SO4)2) are common aluminum compounds.
Aluminum and aluminum alloys have a variety of uses, from kitchen foil to rocket manufacturing.
The fourth most common element in the Earth’s crust is iron, accounting for over 5% of the mass of the Earth’s crust.
Iron is obtained chiefly from the minerals hematite and magnetite. Of all the metals we mine, over 90% is iron, mainly to make steel, an alloy of carbon and iron. Iron is also an essential nutrient in the human body.
Calcium makes up about 4.2% of the planet’s crust by weight.
In its pure elemental state, calcium is a soft, silvery-white alkaline earth metal. It is never found in its isolated state in nature but exists instead in compounds. Calcium compounds can be found in a variety of minerals, including limestone (calcium carbonate), gypsum (calcium sulphate) and fluorite (calcium fluoride).
Calcium compounds are widely used in the food and pharmaceutical industries for supplementation. They are also used as bleaches in the paper industry, as components in cement and electrical insulators, and in manufacturing soaps.
Digging the Earth’s Crust
Despite Jules Verne’s novel, no one has ever journeyed to the center of Earth.
In fact, the deepest hole ever dug by humanity reaches approximately 12 km (7.5 miles) below the Earth’s surface, about one-third of the way to the Earth’s mantle. This incredible depth took about 20 years to reach.
Although mankind is constantly making new discoveries and reaching for the stars, there is still a lot to explore about the Earth we stand on.
Visualizing the Accumulation of Human-Made Mass on Earth
The amount of human-made (or anthropogenic) mass, has now exceeded the weight of all life on Earth, including humans, animals, and plants.
Visualizing the Accumulation of Human-Made Mass on Earth
The world is not getting any bigger but the human population continues to grow, consuming more and more resources and altering the very environment we rely on.
In 2020, the amount of human-made mass, or anthropogenic mass, exceeded for the first time the dry weight (except for water and fluids) of all life on Earth, including humans, animals, plants, fungi, and even microorganisms.
In this infographic based on a study published in Nature, we break down the composition of all human-made materials and the rate of their production.
A Man-made Planet
Anthropogenic mass is defined as the mass embedded in inanimate solid objects made by humans that have not been demolished or taken out of service—which is separately defined as anthropogenic mass waste.
Over the past century or so, human-made mass has increased rapidly, doubling approximately every 20 years. The collective mass of these materials has gone from 3% of the world’s biomass in 1900 to being on par with it today.
While we often overlook the presence of raw materials, they are what make the modern economy possible. To build roads, houses, buildings, printer paper, coffee mugs, computers, and all other human-made things, it requires billions of tons of fossil fuels, metals and minerals, wood, and agricultural products.
The rate of accumulation for anthropogenic mass has now reached 30 gigatons (Gt)—equivalent to 30 billion metric tons—per year, based on the average for the past five years. This corresponds to each person on the globe producing more than his or her body weight in anthropogenic mass every week.
At the top of the list is concrete. Used for building and infrastructure, concrete is the second most used substance in the world, after water.
|Human-Made Mass||Description||1900 (mass/Gt)||1940 (mass/Gt)||1980 (mass/Gt)||2020 (mass/Gt)|
|Concrete||Used for building and infrastructure, including cement, gravel and sand||2||10||86||549|
|Aggregates||Gravel and sand, mainly used as bedding for roads and buildings||17||30||135||386|
|Bricks||Mostly composed of clay and used for constructions||11||16||28||92|
|Asphalt||Bitumen, gravel and sand, used mainly for road construction/pavement||0||1||22||65|
|Metals||Mostly iron/steel, aluminum and copper||1||3||13||39|
|Other||Solid wood products, paper/paperboard, container and flat glass and plastic||4||6||11||23|
Bricks and aggregates like gravel and sand also represent a big part of human-made mass.
Although small compared to other materials in our list, the mass of plastic we’ve made is greater than the overall mass of all terrestrial and marine animals combined.
As the rate of growth of human-made mass continues to accelerate, it could become triple the total amount of global living biomass by 2040.
Can We Work It Out?
While the mass of humans is only about 0.01% of all biomass, our impact is like no other form of life on Earth. We are one of the few species that can alter the environment to the point of affecting all life.
At the current pace, the reserves of some materials like fossil fuels and minerals could run out in less than 100 years. As a result, prospectors are widening their search as they seek fresh sources of raw materials, exploring places like the Arctic, the deep sea, and even asteroids.
As the world population continues to increase, so does the pressure on the natural environment. It is an unavoidable fact that consumption will increase, but in an era of net-zero policies and carbon credits, accounting for the human impact on the environment will be more important than ever.
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