As It Happens

What it was like accidentally discovering the world's northernmost island

Martin Breum is still wrapping his head around his trip to the world's northernmost island. In July, he went with a team of Swiss and Danish researchers to what they originally thought was Oodaaq, the world's northernmost island. But shortly after flying back, they realized they were not on Oodaaq, but another island farther even north.

Danish writer and member of expedition team calls it a 'fantastic' surprise

A team of Arctic researchers from Denmark has discovered accidentally during an expedition what they believe is the world’s northernmost island, located off the coast of Greenland. (Submitted by Morten Rasch/The Associated Press)

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Martin Breum is still wrapping his head around his trip to the world's northernmost island.

Breum is a journalist and author who writes about the Arctic. In July, he travelled with a team of Swiss and Danish scientists destined for Oodaaq, a remote island off the coast of Greenland, then believed to be the world's northernmost.

They flew in a helicopter for about an hour over the mountains of Pearyland, Greenland's northernmost glacier region, before they landed at an islet at 83° 40′ 59.1″ North and 030° 41′ 52.2″ West.

Within an hour, the team collected samples for their research on climate change in the Arctic. They also took a ceremonial swim in the icy waters to "celebrate this particular moment."

But once they flew back, they realized they were not on Oodaaq, but another island even farther north — and previously undiscovered.

Here's part Breum's conversation with As It Happens guest host Peter Armstrong.

What was that moment like when you found out you had been on an undiscovered island?

Well, it was fantastic. This was a great surprise. 

I mean, this gentleman [Rene Forsberg], he's a professor [at DTU Space, the Danish national space institute] and he's responsible for taking care of the data of all these new things up in Greenland for the government — so he knows what he's talking about — and he had been asking about our co-ordinates.

And I wondered: Why does he want the co-ordinates? Because he had them already. And then it turns out that he compared the data and found out we were on a new island.

He said unequivocally — and he had no doubts — that [we] were on a new island, which is the northernmost island in the world presently.

When you landed in the helicopter, where did you think you were?

We all believed very firmly that we had found what we were looking for ... Oodaaq island, which we knew — or believed — to be the northernmost island in the world. 

We had been really, really looking forward to this. You must imagine how far we had travelled already. So the fact that the helicopter could go out there, there wasn't any fog, there was no wind, the weather was perfect. It's not often like that in these parts. 

When Martin Breum flew to a remote island off the coast of Greenland, he assumed what he was standing on was just another piece of land. But he later found out that he and a team of scientists had discovered the world's northernmost island. (Submitted by Martin Breum)

And if I've got it right, [your team] set up a drone and took a picture of the island, which I'm looking at now. It's a scant little thing. Can you just describe it for us?

It's icy, it's dirty, it's muddy, it's cold and it's very charming because it's there, but it's not very significant.

It's perhaps 30 by 50 metres, covered partly by ice. It's gravel and it's a lot of yellowish mud. 

There were scientists who wanted earth samples... so we were just scraping with a spoon and putting [mud] into Ziploc bags, collecting stuff for scientific analysis afterwards to figure out what kind of island is Oodaaq island, because that was the one we believed we were on.

If it had been a little snowier, a little icier, there's no way you would have seen it. How did this one even come to be exposed in the way that it was?

When the sea ice is broken into little pieces, or great pieces, the wind and the currents, they push these pieces of ice around [and bulldoze] the sea bottom. It's soft bottom, so gravel and rocks and mud is pushed up above the surface of the shallow water and then it forms an island. And more ice gets stuck there and pushes more gravel up. 

Or the reverse happens. It pushes the gravel back into the sea…. So much of this island will probably disappear again in a period of time that nobody knows how long it will be there. And several other islands have [already] disappeared.

How do you distinguish between a bunch of sand and mud being pushed together by tides and ice, and an island? Or is that just the definition of an island?

You have to have a part of the island that's above sea level at high tide. 

We are also looking for life on this island…. Is there bacteria, for instance, that are more terrestrial? Then it also becomes more of a true island, as far as I understand. 

What changes as a result of this new island being the northernmost point? Why does this matter?

I mean, the Guinness Book of Records takes an interest. 

We're waiting to find out what was actually in the samples. Was there life on this island of any terrestrial form of the word?

As you say, you were there doing climate science. This was a bit of a side trip for you. But the changing climate has helped change the landscape, or I guess seascape, of where you were. What does the discovery of this island and what you're able to find there tell us about the climate science that was the original motive for you to go there in the first place?

I think the most significant in that regard is the fact that we could get there in nice weather. 

It wasn't cold. It was several degrees above zero. It was nice. It was cozy. We didn't freeze at all.

The speed of climate change in that particular region is astonishing. It's really, really scary. Even if it's comfortable when you're on the little island out there in the ocean … there is less ice than [before]. 

There is too much water, you could say, and too little ice…. This is the strongest sea ice in the Arctic Ocean right north of Greenland. And I think it will also be the last ice that we have of this magnitude.

Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview produced by Niza Lyapa Nondo. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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