18 Mar

Map of the Week: Shipwrecks of the Arctic

By Jessie Woldstad

Many maps rely on data that is tied to the land that we live on and rarely do we see indications of human interaction in places that are far less traveled and, quite frankly, inhabitable. When thinking about these isolated places, the ocean comes to mind, and even more so, the seas around our polar regions. In a map created by Erin Davis, we see the intersection of these lesser-traveled places in a map of shipwrecks in the Arctic.

Being one of the few final frontiers of our planet, both of our polar regions have a long and rich history of ambitious expeditions and wrecked voyages. For instance, many are familiar with the story of the Endurance, in which 27 men incredibly survived after their ship sank on a grueling mission to the Antarctic in 1915. After 108 years, the ship was finally located 10,000 feet on the bottom of the Weddell Sea in remarkable condition in March of 2022—it shouldn’t be a surprise that a ship named “Endurance” could live up to the test of time on the ocean floor.

Looking at the map above, we see the distribution of shipwrecks along the Arctic throughout time. It is interesting to see a concentrated cluster along Northern Europe, then again near Alaska. Why are there more shipwrecks in these areas? Is it because more ships sail here? Maybe the seas are more treacherous here than other places? Perhaps it’s because this area and its shipwrecks are more extensively documented? According to the Yale School of Environment, these are not even the most dangerous places to sail in the Arctic. This title is reserved for the East Siberian Sea, located above Russia, which is at the top of this circular map. Interestingly, there are actually very few points located here, indicating few recorded shipwrecks—this makes some sense, if this is the most dangerous path to sail, maybe the risk shouldn’t be taken!

The points on this map are able to tell stories; for instance, there are lots of shipwrecks that lie on the perimeter of land. This may indicate that a ship has run aground there, or perhaps attempted to sail in too shallow of water. If anything, hopefully it’s an indication that most aboard made it to safety easily from these wrecks. On the other hand, other points on the map may tell a much more dramatic and unsettling story; there are a handful of points that fall farther into the ocean and, therefore, potentially further away from refuge. Such points may be a result of many things: a storm, an iceberg, a mechanical failure; more so, there is a sense of mystery to them. 

This map is only able to tell us about the locations of known shipwrecks; however, it cannot tell us how many ships are never found. In fact, a surprising number of ships and their crews go unaccounted for each year, with 876 ships being lost at sea between 2011 and 2020. Most of these missing ships are cargo ships, but also included fishing vessels, tankers, and even passenger ships. Nevertheless, it is important to understand that some places on our planet remain untouched by people, most likely due to their uninhabitable nature.