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A Little Lesson in Knowledge, Courtesy of an Island that Disappeared (If It Ever Even Existed)

Can a place be "undiscovered"? Wrap your brain around this: for the past few days geographers, Internet speculators and conspiracy theorists have been making much ado about a place that scientists exists according to Google, even if scientists who have...

Nov 26 2012, 9:50pm

Wrap your brain around this: for the past few days geographers, Internet speculators and conspiracy theorists have been making much ado about Sandy Island, a place that exists according to Google Maps, even if scientists who have visited say it doesn’t. And no one quite knows how it got there, or if it ever existed at all.

In case you haven’t been, Sandy is out in the South Pacific, maybe a thousand miles northeast of Brisbane, just west of New Caledonia. (Precise coordinates? -19.262°/159.972°) You can see it on Google Maps, and Bing and iOS maps too, and on nautical charts dating back to at least 1908.

Rising seas don’t appear to be the culprit here. A group of Australian scientists recently confirmed this by sailing over to Sandy, and then directly through the coordinates where the island was supposed to be, according to the Sydney Morning Herald:

We became suspicious when the navigation charts used by the ship showed a depth of 1400 metres in an area where our scientific maps and Google Earth showed the existence of a large island," Dr Maria Seton, a geologist from the University of Sydney, said. “Somehow this error has propagated through to the world coastline database from which a lot of maps are made.”

As for that database? It’s apparently not all that great. The same piece declaring the undiscovery of Sandy Island quotes Mike Prince, the director of charting services for the Australian Hydrographic Service. “We take anything off that database with a pinch of salt,” he said.

Some old maps include Sandy (top: Atlas map : Australian, N.Z. ports, a British map from 1922), some indicate a topographical formation there, and others do not.

Mapmakers often put in fake streets, sometimes called “trap streets,” to catch their competitors out in the event of a copyright dispute. But everyone seems to agree that the addition of this island shouldn’t have anything to do with that, since such falsities tend not to be repeated on oceanic maps.

Sabin Zahirovic, a geologist on the Australian research cruise, said that the island may have been created by human error in the digitizing process, but its existence on numerous historical charts points to something different. And while he and his team used satellite derived bathymetry, a technique that looks at gravity waves to determine what’s beneath the ocean surface, those findings are inconclusive for the spot where the island was supposed to be.

“I have to admit that I was a little nervous when we approached, because it was the middle of the night,” he wrote in a letter to GeoGarage. The problem with measuring depth, he said, “seems to be related to the density of the crust in this region – whether it is volcanic, or continental/sedimentary, or tectonic-influenced seemed to dictate if the satellite-derived bathymetry did a good job in representing the actual depths.” In other words, recent volcanic activity or unusual underwater formations make measuring in this area difficult. “We found in many places the gravitational anomalies from huge sedimentary basins or from recent submarine volcanism shifted the depths by hundreds of meters.”

The historical record and scientific instruments also, unfortunately, preclude discussion of other funky things found on Google Maps (from apparent UFOs to the notorious New Zealand Disco Airplane, caught in camera abberations and by overhead satellites). Google has published false map data before, notably when it suggested that there was a town named Argleton in the Lancashire country side. But what’s notable about the case of Sandy Island is that the error is so widespread. Google was the only company that plotted Argleton, but lots of people have added Sandy Island to their maps.

The mysterious Google Street View UFO

To get back to Zahirovic, the issue is not that there was an error in the digitizing, it’s that an error was digitized, blindly. Which makes total sense. If you were trying to catalogue the entirety of published knowledge, would you have time to fact check every minor landmass? No, you would not.

With the advent of satellite mapping as a matter of course, it’s easy to feel like everything is suddenly out in the open — that the world’s secrets and mysteries have been offered up to the God’s Eye View. In the fight over veracity online—can you, or can you not cite Wikipedia in a college paper? Are those storm photos real?—it’s easy to forget that supposedly reliable sources like Google, the cataloger of the world’s information, can be wrong. Google, wrong? No! This little reminder isn’t an old one but it’s not an idle one either.

Wade past our new mapping tools and into history, and useful lessons emerge. The first confirmed chart to show the island, according to The Register, “states that the island was discovered on an 1876 voyage by a vessel called Velocity. However, the chart also cautions that its source information might not be reliable: "Caution is necessary while navigating among the low lying islands of the Pacific Ocean. The general details have been collated from the voyages of various navigators extending over a long series of years. The relative position of many dangers may therefore not be exactly given.” That’s a good warning for now too.

Sandy Island is visible in this 1908 chart

We humans will continue to collate information from many sources and various interpreters, using all manner of high-tech tools. And for the most part, we’ll get it right. But there will always be certain things that aren’t exactly where or what they seem. And they’ll be insignificant little things like islands—mostly.