Uncovering Underwater Mysteries
Written by SurfWriter Girls Sunny Magdaug and Patti Kishel
Thanks to the pioneering work of American geologist Marie Tharp (1920 – 2006) the mysteries of the ocean’s depths are a little less mysterious.
From 1957 to 1977 Tharp turned the raw data from researchers’ seismic readings of the Atlantic Ocean sea floor into elaborate maps depicting the contours of the ocean bottom. To the surprise of everyone, the maps showed the sea floor to be diverse and multi-layered, rather than the flat, muddy surface most had thought.
Working at Columbia University’s Lamont Geological Laboratory, Tharp painstakingly drew by hand the underwater mountains, canyons and ridges that make up the Atlantic Ocean’s floor.
A woman in a man’s world, many of Tharp’s ideas about the ocean environment were initially dismissed as inconsequential “girl talk”…only to be proven true later.
She was one of the first to support the then controversial theory of continental drift – that the earth’s continents moved over geologic time.
She also identified the rift valley that runs from the Mid-Atlantic Ridge to the South Atlantic, information that would lead to today’s earthquake and tectonic plate research.
Tharp went on to map the Indian Ocean in 1964 and created a world ocean map in 1977, feats that led to her being called “the woman who discovered the backbone of Earth.”
The books Solving the Puzzle Under the Sea, by Robert Burleigh, and Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor, by Hali Felt, both tell Tharp’s story of perseverance to map an ocean landscape that had eluded everyone else.
For her accomplishments Tharp received the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal, the Society of Women Geographers Outstanding Achievement Award, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Mary Sears Woman Pioneer in Oceanography Award.
In 1997 the Library of Congress named Tharp one of the four outstanding cartographers of the 20th Century, displaying one of her maps alongside pages from explorers Lewis and Clark’s journals and a rough draft of the Declaration of Independence.
After a lifetime behind-the-scenes Marie Tharp and her maps were finally where they should be – front and center for all to see.
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