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NOAA Scientist Talks About Finding 1871 Shipwreck in Arctic [INTERVIEW]

Jan 11, 2016 05:59 PM EST
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At the tip-top of Alaska on the Chukchi Sea, shipwrecked parts of two 19th century whaling ships were recently found by a crew of scientists and archaeologists studying the seafloor near the Inupiat village of Wainwright. The wrecks likely occurred in 1871, when 33 whaling ships were iced into the area following a surprise turn of weather. The incident left more than 1,200 whalers stranded until they could be rescued by seven ships. In August and September 2015, researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Maritime Heritage Program discovered two flattened ships' hulls, some anchors, fasteners and brick-lined pots that had been used to hold fire to transform blubber into oil. On the topic of why everything seems to be in good condition after 144 years at the bottom of a sea in the Arctic, the scientists believe a sandbar may have been protecting the items. Also, climate warming may have made it easier to find the wrecks; there was no ice in that part of the Chukchi Sea when the survey was taking place. Nature World News recently spoke with Brad Barr, chief scientist on the expedition:

1. So, considering that many famous shipwrecks are found and explored in the Caribbean, off North Carolina or in other relatively warm waters, conducting marine archaeology in very cold water sounds challenging. Do you often work in such freezing water?

It was our first time doing marine archaeology surveying in the Arctic. We've worked in some cold water, but adding "Arctic" definitely changed the experience. The big challenge there is logistics. For instance, we needed almost a ton of equipment, and had to have a ship to work off of.

2. What was most remarkable about the find?

The fact that the materials (the two flattened hulls, anchors, other ship parts, and a piece of the tryworks -- a brick enclosure in which the fire was built to boil down the whale oil) were there at all was remarkable. I mean, this was after 144 years of seasonal ice coming in and grinding around on the seabed. It's amazing to see those things simply lying there intact next to the rest of the wreck. To be clear, the found objects included anchors from small whaling vessels, rigging strops from a certain kind of 19th century, heavily built vessel meant to withstand Arctic conditions and ice. It's amazing to find archaeological artifacts that were pretty important. (Please scroll down to read further...)

(Photo : Ted and Ellie Congdon, Huntington Library)
A painting of the famous lost whaling fleet (33 ships in total, though not all are shown) from Arctic Alaska in 1871.

3. What was involved in this project?

We had been working on this project for almost a decade. A few years ago we were lucky enough to have the NOAA Office of Exploration and Research approve the funds for us to go into the Chukchi Sea and survey. Several companies also loaned us important technological equipment. Our goal wasn't really to search for shipwrecks: We wanted to collect survey data for an area where we knew that these 33 vessels were lost in 1871. Arriving in the second week of August 2015, we were on site for nearly the rest of August.

4. What were some challenges of the work?

When you're in the Arctic, there are fewer vessels that can handle the rigors of the work. We were very happy with the ship we had, the R/V UKPIK, which is one of only two vessels that charter in that area of the Arctic. Also, the vessel's crew was able to provide local knowledge of the area, which was vital. But because of ship size, we were only able to take a scientific complement of four. That meant that each of us scientists had to work eight hours on, eight hours off, overseeing the seabed survey and collecting data. By the end of it, we were all pretty worn down. 

The surveying involved a technique known among marine data collectors as "mowing the grass" -- you go down one row, then up another, of the area being surveyed -- in this case, the ocean floor in that area of the Chukchi.

5. What are other results that you would mention?

Besides finding the anchors and other materials, we collected magnetometer data that showed some very deep anomalies below the seabed. That is, the results suggest that other wrecks may be buried beneath the seafloor. We won't excavate, but it's important knowledge to have. We'll share the data with the Office of History and Archaeology - Alaska Department of Natural Resources. Now that we know that the materials are there, the area can be protected as maritime archaeological resources. That way, if people intend to build around there or, say, put in a pipeline, they'll know to be careful of that area.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

-Follow Catherine on Twitter @TreesWhales

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