The scientific legacy of 'undiscovering' an island

April 17, 2013
The scientific legacy of 'undiscovering' an island
Dr Maria Seton recently wrote an 'obituary' for Sandy Island in the journal 'EOS'.

The 'undiscovery' of an island by a team of scientists led by the University of Sydney resulted in worldwide scientific debate, the correction of databases and a re-evaluation of the infallibility of certain information.

"The mystery of Sandy Island called into question how well humanity really knows our own planet," said Dr Maria Seton, from the University's School of .

Dr Seton, was chief scientist on the RV Southern Surveyor last year when it undertook a voyage aimed at understanding the tectonic evolution of the eastern .

During the trip the team of Australian and 'undiscovered' Sandy Island, a 25km long and 5km wide feature, that appeared in numerous scientific data sets and in Earth but was absent from the hydrographic charts used onboard ship for navigation.

"The island was not there. The data we collected on the voyage and subsequently obtained from the Australian Hydrographic Service confirmed what we suspected - data sets showing the island were wrong."

There was intense global interest from traditional and social media and in Australia it became the most read story of 2012 on the Sydney Morning Herald's news website.

The scientific legacy of 'undiscovering' an island
The supposed 'Sandy Island' as seen on Google Earth.

Extensive scientific debate followed, as the undiscovery appeared to contradict some of the most fundamental data sets used by the , including global coastlines, water depths and products from including Google Earth.

"The response to the 'Sandy Island' story highlighted the strength and enthusiasm of the scientific community in coming together to resolve a controversy through crowd‐sourced research," Dr Seton said.

The outcome was that databases on which the scientific community rely are being updated and others are in the process of being corrected.

In a recent 'obituary' for Sandy Island written for the journal EOS, Dr Seton and her colleagues explain that Sandy Island was first sighted by the whaling ship Velocity in 1876 and first appears on a British admiralty map in 1908. Over the years a failure to spot the charted island resulted in its removal from hydrographic charts.

The answer to why it persisted in other data sets lies in the freely accessible World Vector Shoreline Database, originally developed by the American military and widely used by the scientific community.

"During the conversion from hard-copy charts to digital formats the 'Sandy Island' error was entrenched," said Dr Seton. "Inconsistencies in this data set exist in some of the least explored parts of our planet, a result of both human digitising errors and errors in the original maps from which the digitising took place."

Dr Seton reflects that the experience demonstrated the genuine interest the general public has in marine science and Earth exploration.

"It also underscores that although global data sets are an invaluable resource, users must be aware of the uncertainties of raw data inputs and it points to the invaluable contribution of marine scientific research voyages for accurately mapping the oceans."

As to the origin of the non-existent island first sighted by Velocity one possibility is that the crew may have sighted a vast pumice raft, large areas of floating pumice formed as result of volcanic eruptions.

"Whether originally pumice or a figment of a whaling crew's imagination 'Sandy Island' has been a valuable mythbusting adventure for all involved," Dr Seton said.

Explore further: NASA images reveal how Hurricane Sandy changed coastline in New Jersey

Related Stories

Aussie scientists un-discover Pacific island

November 22, 2012

A South Pacific island identified on Google Earth and world maps does not exist, according to Australian scientists who went searching for the mystery landmass during a geological expedition.

Slab of Barrier Reef sea floor breaking off

December 21, 2012

A huge slab of sea floor near the Great Barrier Reef is in the early stages of collapse and could generate a tsunami when it finally breaks off, researchers warned Friday.

NASA Wallops recovery continues from Hurricane Sandy

March 6, 2013

(Phys.org) —Hurricane Sandy came ashore in northern New Jersey Oct. 29, 2012, and as the powerful storm made its way along the East Coast it brought damage to NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Va. The Wallops ...

Recommended for you

Drought's lasting impact on forests

July 30, 2015

In the virtual worlds of climate modeling, forests and other vegetation are assumed to bounce back quickly from extreme drought. But that assumption is far off the mark, according to a new study of drought impacts at forest ...

A cataclysmic event of a certain age

July 27, 2015

At the end of the Pleistocene period, approximately 12,800 years ago—give or take a few centuries—a cosmic impact triggered an abrupt cooling episode that earth scientists refer to as the Younger Dryas.

'Carbon sink' detected underneath world's deserts

July 28, 2015

The world's deserts may be storing some of the climate-changing carbon dioxide emitted by human activities, a new study suggests. Massive aquifers underneath deserts could hold more carbon than all the plants on land, according ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.