Marie Tharp’s groundbreaking maps brought the seafloor to the world

<figcaption><span style=”font-size:small;font-family:avenir;”>This 1977 map of the world’s ocean floors was painted by Heinrich Berann based on the science and cartography of Marie Tharp and Bruce Heezen.. <em>Library of Congress.</em></span><br></br></figcaption>

Walk the halls of an academic earth sciences department, and you’ll likely find displayed on a wall somewhere a strikingly beautiful map of the world’s ocean floors. Completed in 1977, the map represents the culmination of the unlikely, and underappreciated, career of Marie Tharp. Her three decades of work as a geologist and cartographer at Columbia University gave scientists and the public alike their first glimpse of what the seafloor looks like.

In the middle of the 20th century, when many American scientists were in revolt against continental drift — the controversial idea that the continents are not fixed in place — Tharp’s groundbreaking maps helped tilt the scientific view toward acceptance and clear a path for the emerging theory of plate tectonics.

Tharp was the right person in the right place at the right time to make the first detailed maps of the seafloor. Specifically, she was the right woman. Her gender meant certain professional avenues were essentially off-limits. But she was able to take advantage of doors cracked open by historical circumstances, becoming uniquely qualified to make significant contributions to both science and cartography. Without her, the maps may never have come to be.

Continue reading at Science News where this story was originally published.

Author: Betsy Mason

Betsy is a freelance writer and editor specializing in science and cartography based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work appears in numerous publications including National Geographic, Science, Nature, WIRED, Outside, Science News, Scientific American, Discover, and New Scientist.

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