Why the Soviet submarine wasn’t found in an underwater labyrinth

Arctic waters captured by a Soviet submarine 32 years ago do not lie submerged in a deep-sea labyrinth, as researchers had previously believed. They’ve been tracking the island that sits where the submarine once hit the water on the ocean floor for years now, and they’ve figured out what it actually looks like.

They published their findings in the Journal of Geophysical Research on Friday. But the new picture also brings evidence that the Soviet sub really did enter the Arctic Ocean before anyone realised it was there.

This scan of the area was taken in 2009, which is when a robot first visited the site, according to Brian O’Rourke, one of the paper’s lead authors. The Soviet sub was never found, and the region at the time was considered a lost area of unexplored territory.

Now, a newer version of the long-search-and-recover map shows this island is flat, shallow, and easily accessible to current sonar technology. Those sensors haven’t “seen the terrible things” that appear in this earlier version, O’Rourke said.

The smaller, more obscure, “SNOCam” underwater robot in the chart above. Photo credit: UC Santa Cruz.

I asked O’Rourke what the first idea was, of what exactly it looked like. He cited a discussion online about “this little island with these shell-shaped structures.” (No really.)

The original drawing above, which captured the area in 1985. Photo credit: Alaska Air National Guard.

The first idea was that, had an oil spill or other such environmental catastrophe occured, it would help investigators find the wreckage. That’s still theoretically possible, though since the waters were thus far preserved by oil. (Researchers knew of other underwater regions that weren’t seemingly accessible, at least before modern human habitation.)

The only other possibility, O’Rourke said, was that someone planned to conduct exploration of the site in a deeper way. And that there was another vessel either hidden in the world or actively exploring the ocean floor.

In any case, O’Rourke said, “it’s interesting to get confirmation of what we’ve speculated for a long time, which is that there was this sub at that site, and they came and explored it.”

Some modern scientists have said that it’s possible the sub was found in later decades. But it’s harder to detect small submersibles than the 1970s-era submarine. And there’s “no evidence they were ever found,” O’Rourke said.

I asked a few different space scientists about the new findings. Matthew Kraft, a professor of astrobiology at the University of Cambridge, said he thought it was a good thing that the Russian/Soviet submarine was found, because it leads to a more intense debate on what type of technology is needed to visit underwater environments. The Soviets were saying that the sub may have had a “glider” device and not a submarine, which is very different from modern practices.

After this, NASA and other private spaceships could become more willing to land on the ocean floor for experiments, Kraft said. There has not been much proof that these things exist. The thing about the new study, though, is that it’s consistent with NASA’s current practices for how it researches the ocean floor.

“I’m a little surprised,” Kraft said. “It’s sort of my cup of tea that we’re not hunting the ocean floor, but this article suggests we have a really good chance of finding such a device.”

In an email, Dirk Kurbjuweit, a scientist from the German Max Planck Institute, also pointed out that the article argues for a similar approach in future.

“The obvious next step would be for the authors to apply for the licence and for the inspection visit from the licensed parties.”

I did some checking to see if Kurbjuweit and others were on board. The institute says it hasn’t heard from anyone from the lab about a trip to the area.

Update, 6:21 p.m. PDT: “We heard nothing about the Polish visit,” writes Christopher Burt, a space historian at the University of California, San Diego.

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