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The Mysterious Disappearance of Jeannette Island (on Google Maps)

January 9, 2019

By Narine Khachatryan

If you are browsing around Google Maps and, for some reason, looking at islands in the East Siberian Sea, you will come across something peculiar — a nightmarish black blob covering up what should be a landmass named Jeannette Island.

This island, in reality, is quite small, at only three square kilometers, and part of the De Long Island archipelago in the East Siberian Sea. The uninhabited island was not discovered until the late 19th century during the Jeannette Expedition, which tried, unsuccessfully, to reach the North Pole through the Bering Strait. Though the history of Jeannette Island is as brief as it is uninteresting, the peculiar way that Google Maps renders it has led to a plethora of conspiracy theories, ranging from the involvement of aliens to secret deals from President Obama.

Missing and incomplete data on mapping services is not an uncommon occurrence, of course. In some cases, areas are censored or obscured on satellite imagery intentionally; there is a fascinating Wikipedia article listing a number of locations with intentionally or unintentionally censored or blurred locations. The reasons for obscuring some of these are self-evident — they’re nuclear power plants, prisons, etc. — while other decisions to obscure maps are political (all of Israel and Palestine, thanks to U.S. legislation).

There are, hence, a few questions worth asking with regard to Jeannette’s “disappearance”: Was the blacking out of the island intentional, or is it some sort of glitch? What can we find out about this island online, both from reliable sources and, to put it mildly, unreliable ones?

Aliens? A Military Base? Secret Intelligence Facilities?

One of the first things that may catch your eye when researching the island is the low rating it has on Google: Did people actually visit this uninhabited island and, for some reason, were unsatisfied with their stay?

As it turns out, most of the bad reviews are due to the fact that the island is “hidden” on Google Earth. Other reviewers are suspicious that Russian President Vladimir Putin is up to no good there, hatching evil plans for Jeannette Island.

As with many other topics, 4chan provides some of the more outlandish conspiracy fodder for Jeannette Island, as seen in a lengthy post from last year. The 4chan user in question wrote what is probably a creepypasta about how a distant relative of his had disappeared on the island in the early 2000s while serving in the Russian Navy.

The user was asking the forum’s help in figuring out what was going on on the island, and the “very Lovecraftian” case was cracked by concluding that the island was most likely inhabited by aliens.

When it came to more serious answers, other anons suggested that Google Maps blurred out the island due to the presence of a military base or missile silo.

Others saw (or, were trolling and therefore pretending to see) geopolitical intrigue surrounding the mysterious island — President Obama allegedly “gave away” disputed islands near Alaska to Russia, including Jeannette.

The Real Jeannette Island

While Jeannette Island may be shrouded by mystery on both Google Maps and 4chan, the island is actually open for expeditions and visitors, as evidenced by a number of reports and photos of it posted online. Though you cannot see the island from the sky on Google, you can from the ground on the Russian social network Vkontakte (VK), thanks to a user who uploaded an album of photographs he took on the island in 2011.

Jeannette Island, in 2011 (source)

Judging by the photos of the island, it is not home to any secret military bases or missile silos — let alone extraterrestrial beings — unless they are underground or well camouflaged. Photos of a more recent expedition to the East Siberian Sea islands, including Jeannette, were uploaded recently onto Instagram.

These photographs were taken during the Pax Arctica, a Russian Arctic expedition led by explorer Luc Hardy. The expedition became immortalized in a French documentary film titled Artika Incognita. During the expedition, the crew actually stepped foot on Jeannette Island, and filmed it from above.

Looking back even further, there is a sketch of Jeannette Island from 1881 that matches the photographs of the island uploaded onto social networks.

As we can see from all the photographs, videos, and other materials online, Jeannette Island is actually visited by people fairly often, including by scientists, and there are no restrictions for someone who wants to experience the “mysterious” island firsthand. So, why is the island censored on Google Maps?

Jeannette Island From the Sky

When looking on Google Earth, the same blurring effect is visible for Jeannette Island, without any alternate historical imagery available.

The source of this satellite image is from either the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and NASA with their Landsat collection, or the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Copernicus program. It most likely comes from Landsat, as there is no data visible from the Copernicus Open Access Hub for Jeannette Island.

Imagery from recent Landsat 8 satellite imagery (via Sentinel Hub Playground) shows us Jeannette Island as it really appears, matching the photographs of the island uploaded onto social networks.

While Google Maps makes Jeannette Island look like an Arctic Area 51, it is completely unremarkable on Bing Maps.

To recap, Jeannette Island clearly exists, and is visible in the low-resolution satellite imagery of the area on other sites. But why does Google Maps and Earth apparently blur out this unremarkable, uninhabited Russian island?

The answer probably lies in a simple error with the USGS/NASA Landsat program. When there is data loss or errors during the capturing of satellite imagery or its transfer, various colors and shapes are used to illustrate the error. For example, Google Maps shows a strange yellow square along the border between Afghanistan and China. This is due to an error of rendering satellite imagery onto the map, rather than intentional censorship.

More similar to Jeannette Island is “Sandy Island,” a “phantom island” that was represented by a black blotch on Google Maps east of Australia. Sandy Island was included in maps since the 18th century, but was “undiscovered” this decade when scientists realized that it did not actually exist.

In reality, there is only ocean in the area designated as Sandy Island, as the outline of the “island” is roughly the same as the black blotches — likely, these black marks were inserted automatically to account for the lack of land in the area that the mapping service expected to find it.

Similarly to Jeannette Island, the black marks look as if they were manually entered, though the shape of the island is much closer to the black marks in the case of Sandy Island than Jeannette (though the expected landmass shape could be complicated by the ice surrounding the island for much of the year). The satellite imagery used for this black blotch came, just as with Jeannete Island, via Landsat. Most likely, this same explanation can be ascribed for the Jeannette Island mystery: An error in the Landsat satellite image that expected to find a certain shape and set of pixels, but instead saw something else, and produced the mysterious black blotch as a placeholder.

Narine Khachatryan

Narine is a Yerevan-based journalist/translator who focuses on social, economic, human rights and political issues in Armenia and the South Caucasus. Prior to joining Bellingcat, she worked with a group of independent journalists, seeking to provide reliable and unbiased information to the public.

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12 Comments

  1. J E

    The comment about Israel and the refrenced article are obsolete. You can see Israel clearly on Google Earth, Google Maps and Google Street View.

    Reply
    • Aric Toler

      Hi J, the comment about Israel is regarding the specific and deliberate downgrading of imagery quality for Israel and Palestine, as detailed in the hyperlink in the article.

      Reply
  2. Mad Dog

    That was fun Aric, but I think you failed to convince most of the Druids on 4Chan…LOL. Gotta be Obama selling out to the Russkies!

    Reply
  3. AM

    I think the clue to this is in your last couple of frames, though you may be laying it at the wrong agencies feet.

    Google Maps composites many imaging sources, (not all of them are even Sat images) and layers them together. What you see depends on both the area and the amount you are zoomed in. Google seems to be punching out the base ocean map based on a vector outline of know island land masses, with the intent being to substitute a higher res image of the actual island. Looking at Google, Apple, and Bing maps you see the differences in base image and that Bing is showing a clear(and probably much older) image, Apple currently shows one partially obscured by clouds and ringed by sea ice that looks like aerial not satellite imagery.

    All three have chosen to save space by showing a false background for the arctic ocean, instead of showing sea ice and cloud cover. All three also still show data based on a Mercator type projection, because it’s easy and familiar to most people. It’s also horribly distorted at high north and south latitudes. The point being that the difference between Bellingcat and 4chan are communities of people that do or do not take the time to understand the limitations of their tools.

    For whats it’s worth, thanks for helping highlight that.

    This process creates a characteristic halo of “Dark Water” around many islands. In this case there appears to be no image to substitute. The image on Bing

    Reply
  4. Jeremy

    The bing image looks blurred in the center-right of the Bing photo. There is a neat triangular shadow in the Landsat 8 satellite imagery in the same place. It is not absolutely clear whether that is a shadow cast from the sun or if it is camouflaged infrastructure. Probably nothing, but none of the photos show that part of the island, so I think technically inclusive.

    Why would Google randomly blur the island? Someone would have had to have coded that intentionally.

    Reply
    • Ian

      I’m guessing the ‘blur’ in the Bing photo is a little firn or ice cap. This shows mostly white in the Landsat pic, although throwing a blueish shadow due to low elevation on the sun, this low sun angle being evidenced by the long shadow of the island itself extending to its lower right. You can see this ice in Luc Hardy’s first pic.

      Reply

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