Scientists discover 'world's northernmost island' off Greenland's coast by accident

The small island measuring 30 metres across was revealed by shifting pack ice

Swiss entrepreneur Christiane Leister, creator of the Leister Foundation that financed the expedition. Reuters
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Scientists have discovered a new island off the coast of Greenland which they say is the world's northernmost point of land.

The small island, measuring roughly 30 metres across and a peak of about three metres, consists of seabed mud as well as moraine – soil and rock left behind by moving glaciers. The team said they would recommend it is named "Qeqertaq Avannarleq", which means "the northernmost island" in Greenlandic.

"It was not our intention to discover a new island," polar explorer and head of the Arctic Station research facility in Greenland, Morten Rasch, told Reuters. "We just went there to collect samples."

The discovery was first reported earlier on Friday by Danish newspaper Weekendavisen.

The scientists initially thought they had arrived at Oodaaq, an island discovered by a Danish survey team in 1978. Only later, when checking the exact location, they realised they had visited another island 780 metres north-west.

"We were six people in a small helicopter, and when we reached the position of Oodaaq Island, we could not find it," Rasch told the BBC, adding that maps were not very accurate in that part of the world.

"So, we just started to search for the island. After a few very exciting minutes, we landed on a strange unvegetated bunch of mud, moraine deposits and gravel surrounded by sea ice on all sides – not a very friendly place.

"After the expedition and many discussions with specialists on the topic, we have now realised that we by accident actually discovered the world's most northerly island."

Swiss entrepreneur Christiane Leister, creator of the Leister Foundation that financed the expedition, said: "Everybody was happy that we found what we thought was Oodaaq island.

"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."

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

Though it was exposed by shifting pack ice, the scientists said the island's appearance now was not a direct consequence of global warming, which has been shrinking Greenland's ice sheet.

Rene Forsberg, professor and head of geodynamics at Denmark's National Space Institute, said the area north of Greenland has some of the thickest polar sea ice, though he added it was now two to three metres thick in summer, compared with the four metres when he first visited as part of the expedition that discovered Oodaaq in 1978.

Any hope of extending territorial claims in the Arctic depends on whether it is in fact an island or a bank that may disappear again. An island needs to remain above sea level at high tide.

"It meets the criteria of an island," said Forsberg. "This is currently the world's northernmost land."

But Forsberg, an adviser to the Danish government, said it was unlikely to change Denmark's territorial claim north of Greenland.

"These small islands come and go," he said.

– Additional reporting by Reuters

Updated: August 28, 2021, 6:57 AM