by Aakash Sharma

January 19, 2021

European maritime history is slowly disappearing in the Arctic

The maritime history of Europe represents an era of human interaction with the sea, primarily in North-western Europe, which consists of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and the United Kingdom, among other countries. In these areas of North-western Europe, there has been immense human activity since the earliest days of Europe, majorly through affairs like shipping, whaling, naval battles, and military installations like lighthouses, etc.

The seas and oceans complement a significant part of European history because Europeans greatly facilitated maritime traffic & commerce and further harnessed it in exploring the world. Naturally, today many scientists and archaeologists are working to preserve the cultural history and heritage that has safely reposed in deep waters for centuries, away from any humanmade harm and destruction.

Maritime history of Europe represents an era of human interaction with the sea in North-western Europe
Maritime history of Europe represents an era of human interaction with the sea in North-western Europe

Journey to Svalbard- History Revisited

Until the June of 2019, when a group of archaeologists set out on a journey to explore the seabed near Svalbard—a large, ice-covered Norwegian archipelago situated halfway between continental Norway and the North Pole, to find Dutch ships sunk by the French in the 17th century.

In this group was Øyvind Ødegård, a marine archaeologist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who has worked for decades to protect Norway’s underwater cultural heritage—the shipwrecks and other artifacts. Ødegård and his team outlined promising spots in the ocean with the help of historical reports made to France’s King at the time- Louis XIV. But when the unit deployed underwater drones for inspection, they found nothing at all to their utter surprise.

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Øyvind Ødegård, a marine archaeologist

Vanished Evidence of History

The explorers couldn’t find anything on the seabed. Historical records and evidence about thousands of European whaling ships that ventured to Svalbard, out of which many never left the frozen islands. These were the vessels buried in sea ice due to storms and blizzards or drowned by enemy fleets. Finding them could have provided new revelations for many undiscovered parts of European history.

Since the 16th century, thousands of European whaling ships were reported to have gone to Svalbard to hunt the region’s massive whale population. During this period, much of European Arctic history was made from the shipping world on the sea rather than land.

Culprits of the Clean-up

Ødegård and his crew deduced that the ship ruins were once present on the seabed but have disappeared over a long period. And, since no human excursion had been embarked upon to explore the Arctic seabed for studying and analyzing ship wreckage, the ruins weren’t removed by humans, but by the ravening creatures of the sea that are ‘shipworms’.

Shipworms are marine creatures with long, soft, naked bodies notoriously known for boring into, and eventually destroying, wood immersed in seawater, including wooden piers, docks, and ships. A sizable infestation can ruin a sunken boat, and everything inside the vessel- from human remains to archaeological artifacts, in just a few years.

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Crew of the HMS Terror, stuck in the ice and commanded by the British admiral George Back (1796-1878), salvaging lifeboats and provisions east of the Frozen Strait, during the Frozen Strait Expedition, 1836-1837. Yellowknife, Prince Of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. Photograph: De Agostin

Biological Habitat of Shipworms

The habitability of shipworms in the coldest regions on earth was hitherto unknown. These creatures have long been recognized as an archaeological threat. Still, they weren’t considered as potential threats to the unexplored wreckage lying on the seafloor, as the temperatures here are too cold for them to thrive.

However, the exploratory trip to Svalbard suggested that underwater heritage, perhaps, across the world’s northern oceans may not just be merely be lying there, cleanly preserved and waiting to be discovered. Natural attributes have begun to adversely affect the shipwrecks that, for centuries, remained relatively preserved.

With the presence of shipworms in the coldest regions of the Arctic, it can also be inferred that ocean currents and climate change are playing a significant role in bringing warm water masses into the Arctic and subarctic regions. Research into whether the shipworms found in the northern areas are a southern species that moved north or an all-new species that thrive in colder water is underway.

Further Exploratory Research

Ødegård is now planning to work with other researchers to better address shipworms’ situation in the western Arctic region. Matthew Ayre, a climate historian at the University of Calgary in Alberta, hopes to work with Ødegård to locate wrecks near Greenland, another cold island region located on the east of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Although the shipworm threat is currently confirmed only around Svalbard, there are chances that it might have moved to other regions where the oceanic climate has begun to turn warm due to climate change.

Ayre’s work isn’t majorly focused on ship wreckage destruction. He has expertise in examining historical records such as captain’s notes, which give a complete and accurate explanation of weather conditions and shipping details. This data is then used to provide a comprehensive picture of the historic Arctic climate and improve future climate modeling.

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An image from the deck of the wreck of HMS Terror as it lies on the seabed. Photograph: Arctic Research Foundation

Similar Terrains Facing the Same Threat to History

Ødegård also plans on collaborating with Maxime Geoffroy, a marine biologist at the Memorial University of New Foundland and the University of Labrador. They plan to conduct an experiment in which they will search for shipworms off the coast of Labrador in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and 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. A year later, they were pulled up and inspected for worms’ presence.

While Labrador’s conditions may be very different from those of Svalbard, it is imperative to make such collective efforts to understand better the threat posed by shipworms and thus by climate change in cold regions of the Arctic. It is vital to find out and neutralize the dangers posed by creatures such as shipworms, which is further induced by the monumental climate crisis we face today, to preserve the historical evidence for exploring European history.

Finding these material remains before it’s too late is critical for bringing to life a story more resonant today than ever. In Europe’s whaling history, one of the first humans inflicted catastrophes on nature is apparent. And for telling a story of vices and their consequences, the intricate material proof is requisite for human psychology to comprehend and relate to.

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