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Scientists stumble upon world's northernmost island

August 28, 2021

A team of researchers has come across the Earth's most northerly island. The discovery came about by chance, after a mix-up with satellite tracking.

Tiny island surrounded by ice
The yet-to-be-named island has a peak of 3 meters and is some 30 meters acrossImage: Julian Charriere/REUTERS

A Danish research team that set foot on what is apparently the planet's northernmost piece of land said the location was discovered by accident.

The news comes amid intensifying competition among Arctic nations such as the United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark and Norway for control of the North Pole and its surrounding seabed.

How did they find the island?

The group from Copenhagen University say they hadn't even been looking for the tiny island off the coast of Greenland, which was revealed by shifting pack ice.

Initially, the scientists thought they had arrived at Oodaaq — an island discovered by a Danish survey team in 1978 — to collect samples.

It was only later, when they checked the exact location, that they realized they had visited another island 780 meters (850 yards) northwest of it.

"We were informed that there had been an error on my GPS which had led us to believe that we were standing on Oodaaq Island," said Morten Rasch from Copenhagen University's department of geosciences and natural resource management.

"In reality, we had discovered a new island further north, a discovery that just slightly expands the kingdom" of Denmark, said Rasch, who was head of the mission.

"Everybody was happy that we found what we thought was Oodaaq island," said Swiss entrepreneur Christiane Leister, whose foundation financed the expedition.

"It's a bit like explorers in the past, who thought they'd landed in a certain place but actually found a totally different place."

However, the yet-to-be-named island may not be around for long.

A short-lived islet?

The small island measures roughly 30 meters (some 100 feet) across and has a peak of about 3 meters. It consists of seabed mud as well as the type of soil and rock that is left behind by moving glaciers.

Any hope of extending territorial claims in the Arctic would depend on whether the island remains above sea level, even when the tide is at its highest. 

Rasch told the AFP news agency it could be a "short-lived islet."

"No one knows how long it will remain," he said. "In principle, it could disappear as soon as a powerful new storm hits."

The team has recommended the tiny land mass be named "Qeqertaq Avannarleq"— meaning "the northernmost island" in Greenlandic.

Formerly a Norwegian, then Danish colony, Greenland became an autonomous territory in 1978 but remains part of the Kingdom of Denmark.

A number of US expeditions searched for the world's northernmost island in recent decades. In 2007, the Arctic veteran Dennis Schmitt discovered a similar island close by.

Although the island was exposed by moved pack ice, the scientists said its appearance now was not a direct consequence of global warming — although the phenomenon has been shrinking Greenland's ice sheet.

rc/dj (AFP, Reuters)