Arctic 'Ghost Islands': Misidentified Icebergs?


Aug 19, 2003

Greenland island is world's northernmost island - scientists​

A group of scientists say they have discovered by luck what they believe is the world's northernmost island off Greenland's coast.

In July, the scientists flew to collect samples to what they thought was Oodaaq Island, that has been known since 1978. But when they checked their position with the Danish official in charge of registering Arctic islands, they were 800m (2,625ft) further north. The 60X30m island is the closest point of land to the North Pole, they say. Greenland is a vast autonomous Arctic territory that belongs to Denmark.

"The island was discovered during a Danish-Swiss research expedition, which I was co-ordinating," scientific leader Morten Rasch of the Arctic Station in Greenland, University of Copenhagen, told the BBC. "We wanted among many other things to visit Oodaaq Island, which was previously known as the northernmost island."

Mr Rasch said his team "wanted to sample the island to look for new species being adapted to a life in this very extreme environment. We were six people in a small helicopter, and when we reached the position of Oodaaq Island, we could not find it," he said, adding that maps were not very accurate in that part of the world.
This August 2021 article provides more details on the "northernmost island" mistakenly believed to have been the Oodaaq Island recorded in 1978. It includes the following explanation for apparent islands that may not be islands (or at least not persistent islands) in the first place.
... Our belief that we had indeed been on world’s northernmost island, and that it had not been Oodaap Qeqertaa, grew stronger after reading an article in Polar Record 2019 titled “Oodaaq Ø and other short-lived islets north of Greenland,” by Danish geologist Ole Bennike and U.S. explorer Jeff Shea.

The two authors recounted how no less than seven small islands, including Oodaap Qeqertaa, have been registered in the shallow waters off the tip of Greenland since 1978 by Danish and American expeditions (which may account for some of the names given to them: 1996 American Top of the World Island, Stray Dog West and 2003 Euro-American Island). All of them seem to have disappeared again. According to Bennike and Shea, Oodaap Qeqertaa has not been seen since 1980, and there are no sightings of any of the other six registered islets after 2008.

Rasch, our coastal geomorphologist, who is the scientific director of Arctic Station, the oldest research station in Greenland, explained that an islet in these waters, formed by old moraine that has been pushed above the surface by sea ice, can disappear as rapidly as it comes when ice floes are shifted about in the shallow waters by winds, waves and currents.

Swiss-Danish expedition finds the world’s northernmost island
This August 2022 article summarizes the results of new surveys and analysis. The researchers conclude the mysterious small islets represent grounded icebergs covered with dirt and rocks.
Several “islands” recorded as the northernmost on Earth are probably only icebergs

For years, a heated international debate has been ongoing among explorers, scientists, island-hunters and other interested parties about which is indeed the northernmost island on Earth.

Since 1978, what has appeared to be a mushrooming family of smaller islands north of Greenland has fueled the discussion as still new members of the family were spotted. At least seven of these phenomena have been recorded and celebrated by visiting explorers, adventurers and scientists. ...

Several passing expeditions, explorers and scientists have recorded the structures in the shallow waters north of Greenland as islands. New findings say that they are not; these are icebergs partly or fully covered with gravel and only temporarily stuck on the seabed. When they melt, they will disappear again. ...

What are they?

Now, a year later and following a new expedition counting Swiss and Danish scientists as well as two experts reporting to the Danish authorities, the issue of the small and poorly understood island-like structures has possibly been settled once and for all.

“For many years we all thought that storms from the north pushed sea ice from the Arctic Ocean towards Greenland, where the ice then forced sediments from the seabed towards the surface, so that these new islands were formed, but that is not the case,“ Rene Forsberg, a professor of physical geodesy with DTU Space at the Technical University of Denmark, told me at his office in Copenhagen. ...

New Surveys

Martin Nissen and Rene Forsberg joined the expedition this year to survey the structures in the waters north of Greenland for the authorities in Copenhagen. While Greenland — the world’s largest island — enjoys a large degree of political autonomy, the mapping of Greenland is still a responsibility of the government in Denmark.

During the two weeks of surveying, GPS mapping and lidar (or laser) mapping from a helicopter was carried out alongside bathymetric measurements both in the waters close to the disputed island-structure and also close to a new and previously unmapped member of the family. Some of the island-structures that were recorded years ago have disappeared and were therefore, of course, not subject to any measurement. ...

A peer-reviewed scientific rendering of the collected data will be published in the future, but a preliminary conclusion has been put into a press release.

“The new bathymetry observations confirmed all the ‘islands’ to be located at water depths in the range of 25-45 m, which uniquely confirmed all ‘islands’ to be grounded icebergs, with an usual cover of glacial soil, pebbles and rock debris, forming a new category of semi-stationary ice islands,” the press release reads.

In other words, and according to these new findings, all the structures recorded since 1978 are not islands in any classical sense of the word, but simply icebergs partly or fully covered by gravel and temporarily stranded on the seabed in the shallows north of Greenland. ...