So what’s the significance of the recent discovery of a tiny, transient island in the Arctic Ocean?
It has been reported that in October 2013 a Russian helicopter crew spotted an island in the Arctic Ocean, and a second flight enabled them to mark its position on a chart covering the Laptev Sea (aka East Siberian Sea). This September the finding was confirmed by the crew of the Baltic fleet research vessel, Admiral Vladimirsky.
Amid the scientific tasks scheduled for its round-the-world expedition, the vessel was assigned to check whether this small ‘piece of land’ actually existed. The vessel was approaching the port of Pevek to restock and refuel when the discovery was confirmed.
Scientists onboard, having studied photos taken by the 1913 Hydrographic Expedition depicting ‘Vasilyevsky’, a glacial 15-meter high island, determined it had probably melted down to the small size of the island now observed. As measured, the latter is currently a tiny one-meter-high island of about 500 square meters in area. A research drill showed it is constituted mainly of sand. Despite its small size, scientists predict the island will exist for many years.
Apparently, the helicopter pilots spotting it in 2013 were going to name it “Bounty” as its lagoon reminded them of the island in a well-known advertisement. But then they started arguing over who was the discoverer, ending up with each crew member saying “Ya, ya” (meaning “me” in Russian). That’s how the island’s name was born.
To my mind, the re-discovery of this topographic feature on the surface of our planet demonstrates the isolation and technically challenging surface environment of the Arctic Ocean. We are encouraged to believe satellite coverage, operated by national defence, maritime and other agencies can detect all manner of human activity and natural world phenomena, and yet no-one had spotted this 500 square meter surface feature! Maybe the coverage, resolution and man-power to review remotely-sensed information is not as sophisticated or well-resourced as one is led to believe?
With the increasing shipping activity in the Arctic Ocean, especially by a wide range of research vessels and to some extent Northern Sea Route traffic, the discovery flags up the state of coastal marine charts in the marginal sea areas of this ocean and the consequent risks shipping must accept. Mapping, installation of navigational infrastructure, and accident management resources are just three major issues that need to be addressed throughout the circumpolar North before responsible/viable commercial traffic increase can become a desirable reality.
The re-discovery may also give Russia the opportunity to claim, through a routine international process, the island as its own. That might just make this 500 cubic metres of sand one of the most valuable sand-castles in the world. At least until the seas wash it away.