Oceanography The Official Magazine of
The Oceanography Society
Volume 23 Issue 01

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Volume 23, No. 1
Pages 24 - 33


The Global Seamount Census

Paul Wessel David T. Sandwell Seung-Sep Kim
Article Abstract

Seamounts are active or extinct undersea volcanoes with heights exceeding ~ 100 m. They represent a small but significant fraction of the volcanic extrusive budget for oceanic seafloor and their distribution gives information about spatial and temporal variations in intraplate volcanic activity. In addition, they sustain important ecological communities, determine habitats for fish, and act as obstacles to currents, thus enhancing tidal energy dissipation and ocean mixing. Mapping the complete global distribution will help constrain models of seamount formation as well as aid in understanding marine habitats and deep ocean circulation. Two approaches have been used to map the global seamount distribution. Depth soundings from single- and multibeam echosounders can provide the most detailed maps with up to 200-m horizontal resolution. However, soundings from the > 5000 publicly available cruises sample only a small fraction of the ocean floor. Satellite altimetry can detect seamounts taller than ~ 1.5 km, and studies using altimetry have produced seamount catalogues holding almost 13,000 seamounts. Based on the size-frequency relationship for larger seamounts, we predict over 100,000 seamounts > 1 km in height remain uncharted, and speculatively 25 million > 100 m in height. Future altimetry missions could improve on resolution and significantly decrease noise levels, allowing for an even larger number of intermediate (1–1.5-km height) seamounts to be detected. Recent retracking of the radar altimeter waveforms to improve the accuracy of the gravity field has resulted in a twofold increase in resolution. Thus, improved analyses of existing altimetry with better calibration from multibeam bathymetry could also increase census estimates.


Wessel, P., D.T. Sandwell, and S.-S. Kim. 2010. The global seamount census. Oceanography 23(1):24–33, https://doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2010.60.


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