The Un-Discovery of Sandy Island

24 Nov

A little fallibility is good for humanity, but what else is Google lying about? It pains me to inform readers, that Sandy Island, the tropical paradise in the Coral Sea, is no more. Was it ever?

A Pacific island that seems to have disappeared from the Coral Sea between Australia and New Caledonia may simply have been created by human error in the first place, a scientist says.

Sandy Island, which is seen on numerous maps, nautical charts and even Google Earth, has captured the popular imagination after a team of geologists travelling by ship through the area found to their amazement that it wasn’t there.

Now one of the Australian scientists involved says mistakes made by those who transferred cartographers’ charts to digital form may be at the root of the mysterious island’s appearance and disappearance.

“It’s completely possibly that it was a human error in digitizing these maps at some stage,” geologist Sabin Zahirovic of the University of Sydney told Reuters.

“And it’s just entered the databases once, and it’s stuck around inside the databases, because no scientific vessels have actually been in that region for a very, very long time.”

I should also report, that I searched for “Sandy Island” on Google Maps, getting references to islands in the American northeast, but no enchanted Pacific isle until I inputted “Coral Sea”. And then, there’s this white dot in the blue.

I think this is a teaching moment, when we stop attributing omniscience to our computer toys, and start evaluating our own human errors. I’m reminded of what I learned about hurricane detection. Even with satellites, catching the formation of the vortex that might progress into a cyclone or anti-cyclone is still hit-or-miss. Planes or ships searching in the vicinity are still the most reliable means of verifying the position of a storm.

Speaking on Thursday, Danny Dorling, president of the British Society of Cartographers, said it was not surprising that the error had crept in. “You can’t create a perfect map. You never will,” he said. “Our current world map is a collection of highly accurate satellite maps and some of the oldest data collected from Admiralty charts.”


Dorling also said that in the case of Sandy Island it was probably human error that had led to its creation. Charts were, after all, originally compiled by sailors using a watch and measuring longitude, with ancient sailors travelling by the stars. Far from being fixed, the world map is mutable too: with new islands and archipelagoes appearing following volcanic eruptions, and others disappearing in the same way.

But, you can relax, all your tax dollars spent on Mars exploration might be worth it.

“The maps of Mars and the moon are much higher resolution and coverage than what we have of our own oceans,” he said. “So we really need to go back and send more vessels and research vessels out there to map the ocean floor and better understand what’s out there.”

Somewhere out there is a low-cost vacation destination waiting for tourists gullible enough to believe they are visiting Atlantis.


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