A team of Australian and international scientists including a geologist from The University of Western Australia has ‘undiscovered’ a mysterious south Pacific island recorded on world maps for more than a decade.
Sandy Island has been shown on weather maps, Google Earth and in scientific publications going back to 2000 as sitting between the Australian mainland and the French island of New Caledonia in the eastern Coral Sea.
But when scientists on a research expedition aboard the RV Southern Surveyor sailed into the area last week, they were surprised to find nothing but empty ocean.
A team including Associate Professor Steven Micklethwaite, of UWA’s Centre for Exploration Targeting, was on a scientific excursion to collect submarine data and rock samples from the little explored part of the Coral Sea. The expedition was aimed at understanding the tectonic evolution of the area.
The team became suspicious when the navigation charts used by the ship showed a depth of 1400m in an area where scientific maps and Google Earth showed the existence of a large island. They decided to investigate and found the charts were correct: he island shown by Google Earth as a black blob (at the coordinates 19˚14´S, 159˚56´E) simply did not exist.
“We all had a good laugh at Google as we sailed through the ‘island’,” said Associate Professor Micklethwaite. “Then we started compiling information about the seafloor, which we will send to the relevant authorities so we can change the world map.”
He said nobody knew how the mistake had found its way into the databases used to produce maps.
“One of the sources of that map, ironically, is actually the CIA in the US so of course when we discovered this error we had lots of conspiracy theories floating around the ship. It certainly caused us to have a good giggle.”
The excursion, which also included chief scientist Dr Maria Seton, of the University of Sydney, proved worthwhile in more ways than one: after 25 days at sea the team collected 197 different rock samples and more than 6,800 km of marine geophysical data, and mapped more than 14,000 square kilometres of the ocean floor.
Not only did they uncover rocks formed around 100 million years ago as Australia, Antarctica and New Zealand broke apart, but they also found extensive limestones at 3000m below the waves, revealing a massive drowning of the region over time.