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The University of Southampton
Ocean and Earth Science, National Oceanography Centre Southampton

Managing the seabed through near surface imaging

Since 1994, University of Southampton researchers have been at the forefront of the development, commercialisation and application of new technological methods and interpretative approaches for managing the seabed through novel near surface geophysical methods. The international reputation of the researchers has led to engagement with many national and international, commercial and government sectors, who rely upon our expert advice and innovative development strategies to meet their requirements. Over the last two decades this work has extended to look at multiple aspects of near surface geology and archaeology of the continental shelf for both commercial and scientific purposes

Research challenge

Exploration and construction, within the marine environment, can be both costly and logistically difficult. As a result there has been a pressing need for the development of new technological and methodological approaches that can improve our understanding of this environment. Previous attempts by both the academic and industrial communities to image small buried artefacts in the marine environment met with limited success due to inappropriate equipment, inadequate data collection and processing methods, as well as a dearth of information regarding the acoustic properties of common archaeological materials. Similarly, with the major expansion of marine infrastructure development and mineral extraction from the seabed, as well as a growing recognition of the great importance of submerged archaeology (both wreck and pre-historic finds), techniques to better understand sediment type and mobility over both local and regional scales, particularly those that can be generated from remote sensing techniques (such as high resolution geophysics), are desperately needed. Such developments are of equal benefit for both commercial activities and to inform regulatory bodies.

Our solution

Research funding has permitted the development of new approaches to aid the investigation, characterisation and interpretation of the geology of the seabed and the wider submerged archaeology (beyond just wrecks) it contains. Such research has included the development of high resolution sonar, in particular a 3D sub-surface sonar capable of imaging objects decimetres in size in the top few 10’s of metres of the seabed. This device has been successfully used for resolving geological problems (controls on submarine slope failures – a major marine geohazard), pre-installation engineering issues (identifying Unexploded Ordnance buried in the seabed) and the identification and characterisation of archaeological sites.

In parallel with this, allied numerical and physical modelling techniques have been used to define exclusion zones around archaeological sites within marine aggregate dredging areas and offshore installations. The development of a UK shelf sediment mobility model which, in combination with an integrated review of high resolution geophysical and geological data, has aided our understanding of the sand and gravel resources of the UK shelf and the wider implications of sediment transport on the preservation of submerged archaeological sites. Finally, new approaches have also been developed for extracting sediment transport data from swath bathymetry, which can then be used in hydrodynamic and sediment transport models of the whole shelf and major dredged sandbank systems. Such research has direct applications for the management of offshore infrastructure, the coastal developments and cultural heritage assets (both wreck and submerged landscapes).

Our impact

The nature of our work on seabed and near surface imaging and interpretation provides us with wide reaching and significant impact across many sectors including: sonar product development (including the commercialisation of the 3D Chirp system); marine cultural heritage management; mineral resource management and assessment; expert analysis to major offshore infrastructure projects; military and law enforcement support; and commercial and military sector training. In 2013 a new enterprise venture, Coastal and Offshore Archaeological Services (COARS), was launched in direct response to the growing demand for our services from the commercial offshore marine infrastructure sector.


Featured article: Protecting our underwater heritage
Featured article: Protecting our underwater heritage
3D near surface geophysical imaging is used to understand and managed the seabed.
Near surface geophysical imaging

Key Publications

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