Friday, November 23, 2012

The island that did not exist

A team of Australian scientists have determined that an island featured in Google Maps does not exist after sailing straight through the location where it should have been.

Sandy Island is marked in both Google Earth and on Google Maps, but the small land mass seemingly does not exist. Southern Surveyor, a team of scientists tasked with identifying fragments of the Australian continental crust submerged in the Coral Sea, has steamed to where the island was supposed to be, but it was nowhere to be found.


"We wanted to check it out because the navigation charts on board the ship showed a water depth of 1,400 metres in that area - very deep," Seton, from the University of Sydney, said after the 25-day voyage. "It's on Google Earth and other maps so we went to check and there was no island. We're really puzzled. It's quite bizarre."

"How did it find its way onto the maps? We just don't know, but we plan to follow up and find out," Seton added. Supposedly located between Australia and New Caledonia in the Coral Sea the 30 km long island.

Giggle at Google

Dr Steven Micklethwaite from the University of Western Australia, who was also on the scientific voyage, told the Sydney Morning Herald, "We all had a good giggle at Google as we sailed through the island. Then we started compiling information about the seafloor, which we will send to the relevant authorities so that we can change the world map."

It is apparently not an error seen only in Google Maps. The missing island has regularly appeared in scientific publications since at least 2000. It has even appeared in some editions of the reputed Times Atlas of the World, where it is labelled Île de Sable, the French equivalent of Sandy Island. The case that the island did not exist was first made by some amateur radio enthusiasts on a DX-pedition in April 2000. However, the news was not widely circulated.


"It raises all kinds of conspiracy theories," expedition member Steven Micklethwaite said, adding that the CIA is among the sources of the world coastline database. "It reminded me of the hypernatural island in the "Lost" TV series."

Reasons as to why a non-existent isle might exist on so many maps are many. There have been suggestions that it is a so-called copyright trap, a deliberate error placed in atlases in order to catch out those who might infringe copyright. The famous London A to Z map has several such traps, non existent roads or landmarks, to entrap potential infringers. 

In an edition of the BBC Two programme Map Man, first broadcast 17 October 2005, a spokesman for the Geographer's A–Z Street Atlas company claimed there are "about 100" trap streets included in the London edition of the street atlas.Such traps do work. In the United Kingdom in 2001, the Ordnance Survey (OS) sought compensation from the Automobile Association (The AA), a British motoring association, reaching an out-of-court settlement of £20 million after deliberate "errors" placed on OS maps were reproduced on maps by the AA.

It is unlikely that nautical charts would have added copyright traps deliberately since such additions would reduce confidence in them. Another possibility as to the island's existence could be a longitudinal misplacement of the Easternmost islets of the Chesterfield Group to the West, thus simply due to human error.

In recent weeks Apple has received mountains of criticism over its error ridden mapping application, though according to various reports Sandy Island is not one of them. [BBC / Sky]

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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