More than the Bottom: Multibeam Sonars and Water-column Imaging


The past ten years have seen remarkable advances in our ability to rapidly and accurately map the seafloor. Improvements in sonar design and signal processing have dramatically increased both the spatial and temporal resolution of seafloor mapping systems as well as provided the opportunity to extract information about seafloor character through the concomitant mapping of seafloor backscatter. The latest generation of multibeam sonars, however, can now provide acoustic returns from the water-column as well as from the seafloor. When combined with powerful new visualization tools, the ability to acoustically map large volumes of the water-column opens up vast new areas of application for multibeam sonar data. When applied to the most traditional use of multibeam sonar data (seafloor mapping in support of safe navigation), water-column data afford the opportunity to see small, high-standing targets (like ship’s masts) and offer a powerful tool for critically needed, least-depth detection. Water-column data collected from multibeam sonars also provide numerous opportunities for fisheries research ranging from qualitative descriptions of fish school behavior and vessel avoidance studies (the systems can make measurements well beyond the limited, normal-incidence view of traditional fisheries sonars), to the eventual quantitative measurements of volume backscatter (as systems become more calibrated). Increases in system bandwidth will also open opportunities for target identification studies. With increased bandwith will also come the potential for tuning the systems for the mapping of watermass boundaries, offering a powerful tool for a range of physical oceanographic applications. Finally, the ability to map the water-column has great potential for quantifying the flux of methane into the ocean from natural (and un-natural) seeps. Water-column mapping has already proven a valuable asset in monitoring the Deepwater Horizon well-site for potential blow-outs or gas leaks within the oil-field infrastructure. While single-beam fisheries sonars were used for the Deepwater Horizon studies, multibeam sonar offers a far more efficient approach.


Center for Coastal and Ocean Mapping

Publication Date


Journal or Conference Title

Fall Meeting, American Geophysical Union (AGU)

Conference Date

Dec 13 - Dec 17, 2010

Publisher Place

San Francisco, CA, USA


American Geophysical Union Publications

Document Type

Conference Proceeding