ghost island

The vanishing Arctic ‘ghost island’ could have been a dirty iceberg.

ghost island
These ‘islands’ are on the move.

An expedition off the icy northern Greenland coast spotted what appeared to be a previously unknown island in 2021. It was small and gravelly, but it was declared a contender for the world’s most northerly known land mass. The discoverers named it Qeqertaq Avannarleq (opens in new tab), which means “the northernmost island” in Greenlandic.

But there was a mystery in the area. Several other small islands had been discovered and then vanished just north of Cape Morris Jesup over the years.

Some scientists hypothesized that these were rocky banks pushed up by sea ice.

However, when a group of Swiss and Danish surveyors traveled north to investigate the “ghost islands”(opens in new tab) phenomenon, they discovered something entirely different. They announced their discovery(opens in new tab) in September 2022: these enigmatic islands are actually large icebergs stranded at sea. They most likely came from a nearby glacier, where other newly calved icebergs were ready to float away, covered in gravel from landslides.

This was not the first time land vanished in the high Arctic, nor was it the first time land had to be erased from a map. An innovative airborne expedition redrew the maps of large swaths of the Barents Sea nearly a century ago.

In 1931, the view from a zeppelin.
The 1931 expedition arose from the plans of American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst for a spectacular publicity stunt.

Hearst proposed flying the Graf Zeppelin(opens in new tab), the world’s largest airship at the time, to the North Pole to meet with a submarine traveling beneath the ice. Although Hearst abandoned the plan due to practical difficulties, the idea of using the Graf Zeppelin to conduct geographic and scientific investigations(opens in new tab) of the high Arctic was taken up by an international polar science committee.

They planned an airborne expedition that would use cutting-edge technology to make significant geographical, meteorological, and magnetic discoveries in the Arctic, including remapping much of the Barents Sea.

The expedition was known as the Polarfahrt (German for “polar voyage”). Despite international tensions at the time, the zeppelin carried a team of scientists and explorers from Germany, the Soviet Union, and the United States.

Among them was Lincoln Ellsworth, a wealthy American and experienced Arctic explorer who would write the first scholarly account of the Polarfahrt and its geographical discoveries. The brilliant meteorologist Pavel Molchanov(opens in new tab) and the expedition’s chief scientist, Rudolf Samoylovich, who performed magnetic measurements, were also present (opens in new tab). Ludwig Weickmann, director of the University of Leipzig’s Geophysical Institute, was in charge of meteorological operations.

Arthur Koestler, a young journalist who would later become famous for his anti-communist novel “Darkness at Noon,” depicting totalitarianism turning on its own party loyalists, was the expedition’s chronicler.

The five-day journey took them north across the Barents Sea to 82 degrees north latitude, then east for hundreds of miles before returning south-west.

Koestler provided daily reports via shortwave radio, which were published in newspapers all over the world.

“The experience of this swift, silent, and effortless rising, or rather falling, upwards into the sky is beautiful and intoxicating,” Koestler wrote in his 1952 autobiography.

“We hung out in the Arctic air for several days, flying at a leisurely 60 miles per hour and frequently stopping in mid-air to complete a photographic survey or release small weather balloons.” Everything had the charm and quiet excitement of a journey on the last sailing ship in an era of speed boats.”

ghost island
Built in 1928 and longer than two football fields, the Graf Zeppelin was normally used for ultra-luxurious commercial passenger transportation. Financing for the science mission came in part from the sale of postcards with stamps specially issued by the postal authorities of Germany and the Soviet Union.

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