Svalbard’s Mysterious Disappearing Shipwrecks

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When Øyvind Ødegård set out last June to scour the seafloor near Svalbard—a vast, ice-covered Norwegian archipelago halfway between continental Norway and the North Pole—he had a dream.

A marine archaeologist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Ødegård has worked for decades to protect Norway’s underwater cultural heritage—the shipwrecks and other artifacts that lie, for most archaeologists, literally out of sight and out of mind. His dream was to discover, in these Arctic waters, wrecks that might rival those of the Franklin Expedition, found in Canada’s high Arctic in 2014 and 2016. Those ships, the HMS Erebus and HMSTerror, were so well preserved that after 170 years, divers found individual hairs entangled in combs.

The bitterly cold water in the Arctic Ocean was thought to keep shipwrecks safe—but that may not be the case. Photo by Zuri Swimmer/Alamy Stock Photo

Ødegård had reason to dream big: from the 1600s onward, thousands of European whaling vessels ventured to Svalbard to exploit its bowhead whale population, and at least 600 never left. Instead, they were entombed in crushing sea ice or sunk by rival fleets. Finding them could cast new light on an underexplored part of European history.

“Most European Arctic history from this period happened on ships, not land,” says Ødegård. “The only physical remains that can tell us a story about these lives will come from wrecks.”

Ødegård set off aboard the Arctic University of Norway’s (UiT) R/V Helmer Hanssen last summer, with the aim of finding Dutch ships sunk by the French in the 17th century. Using historical reports made to France’s King Louis XIV, Ødegård and his team pinpointed promising spots. But when they deployed underwater drones for a closer look, they not only failed to find Franklin-esque wrecks—they found nothing at all.

The absence suggested an awful possibility: the wrecks—which no one had attempted to find in the past—had been there, but had vanished. The suspected culprit? Shipworms, one of the world’s most voracious destroyers of underwater heritage.

Not a worm at all, shipworms are tunneling, tube-shaped mollusks that thrive on cellulose. A sizable infestation can destroy a sunken ship in just a few years, exposing to the elements the trove of historical treasures contained inside, from human remains to archaeological artifacts.

Shipworms have long been a recognized archaeological threat, but before 2016 no one realized they could endanger the abundant but unexplored wreckage sprawled across the Arctic seafloor, where it was assumed to be far too cold for them to thrive. That year, however, UiT marine biologist Jørgen Berge led an expedition (which also included Ødegård) to the water off Svalbard to investigate a Norwegian whaler called the Figaro, the world’s northernmost-known wreck. The Figaro appeared in good shape. But during the expedition, the team also hauled up a seven-meter tree trunk riddled with live shipworms.

The idea that shipworms may be threatening Arctic wrecks was reinforced in 2019 when Ødegård’s team found boreholes in wood collected from Svalbard beaches. A closer inspection of the Figaro also turned up previously missed evidence of shipworm infestation.

Taken together, the findings suggest that underwater heritage in Svalbard—and perhaps across the world’s northern oceans—may not simply be lying in situ, cleanly preserved and waiting to be discovered. They also raise new questions about the role that ocean currents and climate change may be playing in bringing warm water masses into the Arctic and subarctic. Researchers aren’t sure whether the shipworms found in 2016 were a southern species that’s moved north, or an all-new species that thrives in colder waters—genetic sequencing is underway.

“There’s an imminent need to explore more widely,” says Berge. “If [wrecks] are already in the process of being eaten up, we may already have lost our chance to learn from them.”

Ødegård is now planning to collaborate with other researchers to get a better handle on the shipworm situation in the western Arctic. Matthew Ayre, a climate historian at the University of Calgary in Alberta, hopes to work with Ødegård—once the COVID-19 pandemic permits—to locate wrecks near Greenland, and assess the shipworm threat there.

“Shipworms are around Svalbard at the moment,” says Ayre, “but will they move elsewhere with warming water? This heritage is so remote that very little work has been done, so we really don’t know.”

Ayre’s work hasn’t typically focused on wrecks. He studies captains’ logbooks, which provide the most comprehensive and consistent descriptions available of 19th-century Arctic sea ice and weather. The data is used to create a more complete picture of the historical Arctic climate, and improve future climate modeling. But after finding the Nova Zembla, a Scottish whaling wreck, near Baffin Island, Nunavut, in 2018, he had his eyes opened anew to the importance of material artifacts.

“That has really diverted my work,” he says. “I look now not just at the climate stuff but also the whalers’ legacies on Baffin Island, and it’s really catalyzed conversations there about this history and the relationship between Inuit and whalers.”

Last June’s Helmer Hanssen voyage also included Maxime Geoffroy, a researcher in marine ecology at Newfoundland and Labrador’s Memorial University. He and Ødegård intend to go fishing for shipworms in Geoffroy’s own backyard, off the coast of Labrador. The plan is to obtain logs of the same tree species used to build whaling ships, weigh them down with chains, and sink them 50 meters. After a year, they’ll be hauled up and examined.

Geoffroy explains that while the conditions off Labrador may be very different from those off Svalbard, this kind of pan-Arctic effort may be needed to complete a truer picture of the threat shipworms pose in colder waters.

For Ødegård, finding these material remains before it’s too late is critical to bringing to life a story more resonant today than ever.

“European whaling was one of the first human-induced ecological catastrophes,” he says. “The massive scale of harvesting, with so little contemplation of the effects, is a very important story to tell, and it’s much easier to make the history relevant to people when you can almost go down to the level of individual lives, look at specific questions, and put as much flesh on those bones as possible.”

But only, of course, if those bones are still there.

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