Scientists Accidentally Discover New Northernmost Island On Earth

The island has no vegetation and no permanent animal life.

Northernmost island
The new island, pictured here, is still officially unnamed.

Morten Rasch

A team of researchers that ventured out into the Arctic this summer looking for microscopic life ended up discovering something much bigger by mistake: the world’s northernmost island. 

The team first thought they landed on Oodaaq, which was previously believed to be the northernmost island on Earth. But they realized they had landed even further north when a journalist traveling with the expedition checked the coordinates of the island they had visited with an advisor to the Danish government. 

“He then told us that we didn’t find Oodaaq Island, but that it was a completely new island that we found,” expedition leader Morten Rasch of the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management tells Treehugger. 

Lost and Found

The discovery was made while Rasch was leading an expedition of three Swiss scientists and three Danish scientists to northeastern-north Greenland this July. The team was not interested in the ground they were standing on, but rather what lies beneath it. They went from location to location camping and taking samples, trying to determine if there were new or unusual bacterial communities in the far north and to compare bacterial communities on land and underwater. This is why they were trying to get to Oodaaq Island, Rasch explains. They wanted to know if it had developed a terrestrial bacterial community. 

“We were not really interested in the fact that it was the . . . northernmost island on the Earth,” he says. “We were interested in the fact that it’s a very strange environment out there, so there was big potential of finding something interesting in relation to life.”

The team set out for Oodaaq Island in a helicopter on July 27th. They took off from Cape Morris Jesup, the northernmost point of Greenland, and headed out over the polar sea.

“We went out to the position of Oodaaq Island, and then we couldn’t find it,” Rasch says. 

The team was on a tight schedule determined by the amount of fuel they had in their helicopter. They knew they could only search for the island for about 10 minutes and still have time to take their samples. 

“And then suddenly a black spot in all this white appeared, and we landed there being 100% sure that we were on Oodaaq Island,” Rasch says. 

In total, the team spent about 15 minutes on the island taking samples. They didn’t realize those samples didn’t come from Oodaaq Island until they had returned to camp and Rasch’s journalist friend informed them of their error. They broke the news to the world on August 26 and since then, Rasch says, his life has been turned upside down.

“I will definitely not go finding a new island in the nearest future,” he says. “It’s crazy.”

Qeqertaq Avannarleq

Northernmost Island

Morten Rasch

At the center of all the hubbub is an island 30 by 60 meters (approximately 98 by 197 feet) that rises three to four meters (approximately 10 to 13 feet) above sea level, the University of Copenhagen announced.  It is 780 meters (2,559 feet) north of Oodaaq, the world’s previous northernmost island. 

The new island is still unnamed. Rasch and his team are suggesting the name Qeqertaq Avannarleq, or northern island in Greenlandic. They considered northernmost island, Rasch says, but decided ”that would be foolish” in case anyone discovers an island even further north.

From the point of view of the research the expedition was conducting, the fact that this is a different, more northerly island means very little. 

“It’s very much the same environment,” he explains. 

The island is composed of marine mud, moraine, stones, and gravel. It has no vegetation and no permanent animal life. 

“I would guess that it could be a place where seagulls hang out once in a while, and it could also be a place where a polar bear passes by once in a while,” he says. 

However, he thinks that the most frequent visitors to the island will probably now be humans. In addition to researchers, there are several island hunters who are excited about the discovery and are in a bit of competition to see who will reach it first. 

For his part, Rasch, who has been leading research trips in Greenland for around 20 years, does not share the island hunters’ enthusiasm but does admit to a sort of bemusement with his find.

“It’s of course also funny as a kind of curiosity in a long life of doing expeditions to have been among those six people who have been standing on soil . . .the closest to the north pole ever,” he says. 

Ephemerial Feature 

While the island is a new find, it is also a vulnerable one. Rasch says it could sink beneath the waves again within 10 to 1,000 years. Geologically, it is known as an “ephemerial feature,” meaning it will never build mountains. 

Its vulnerability is not due to climate-change-induced sea level rise, but rather to the way the island and others like it were formed in the first place. 

The shore off of Greenland is very shallow and covered with sea ice. When a storm strikes, that ice is pressed in towards the shore and it sometimes “bulldozes the sea bottom up,” Rasch explains.  

If the seafloor is raised above sea level, an island is formed. But that island could just as easily be swallowed in the same process the next time a storm hits. 

Rasch says he saw lots of evidence of climate change on the trip that led to the discovery: he noticed the Greenland ice sheet receding, open water in the polar sea north of Greenland, and very little sea ice flowing south. However, the new island is not evidence of climate change and is instead a sign of processes working as normal in the Arctic Ocean. 

“You could in fact say that once there’s no sea ice in the area, then the whole process forming these islands is not in place either, and also the process eradicating these islands again is also no more,” he says.