Tech130-year-old mystery solved: NOAA scientists locate long-lost shipwreck in Lake Huron

130‑year-old mystery solved: NOAA scientists locate long-lost shipwreck in Lake Huron

Wreck of the ship Ironton.
Wreck of the ship Ironton.
Images source: © NOAA

12:27 PM EST, January 16, 2024

The research employed oceanographic scanners and the research vessel RV Storm. Utilizing a modern multibeam sonar, the NOAA researchers were able to perform a comprehensive scan of the lake and precisely identify the location where the Ironton settled.

Challenges faced due to the vast surface area, eased by modern sonar technologies

A couple of decades ago, single-beam sonars were the standard for profiling the bottoms of water bodies. However, these were less accurate and prone to produce unclear sonar point clouds (visible in the graphic above). These clouds are used in determining the shape of the object. Furthermore, objects on the sea bed could often 'blend' into the surroundings, rendering them difficult to identify.

The wreck of the ship Ironton at the bottom of Lake Huron.
The wreck of the ship Ironton at the bottom of Lake Huron.© NOAA

The Ironton is a nearly 197-foot-long ship that met its untimely demise in Lake Huron in the 19th century due to a collision. The inability to locate the wreck over all these years was primarily due to the extensive surface area of the lake, which is nearly 23,166 square miles. For comparison: the Baltic Sea extends for 145,792 square miles. Given the extensive search area, the surviving members of the 7-person crew were unable to pinpoint the exact sinking location, making the search operation over the last 130 years extremely challenging.

It is noteworthy that, according to the scientists, the discovered shipwreck is in remarkably good shape. Despite over a century on the lake bed, the Ironton landed in almost undamaged condition, and no further damage occurred over time. The cold and fresh water of the lake, which lacks destructive properties, helped preserve it. In comparison, similar finds in brackish water bodies often yield shipwrecks in much poorer condition due to the salt content in the water. This find will undoubtedly provide a fascinating exploration opportunity for divers in Lake Huron.

Scientists picked up the Ironton's trail back in 2019 using modern sonar technologies. However, the research on the wreck has remained confidential until now. The exact location and depth at which the Ironton was identified remain undisclosed. Nonetheless, it is known that NOAA plans to explore more square miles of the lake, aiming to uncover further findings and delve deeper into history.

See the footage from the discovery of the Ironton ship at the bottom of Lake Huron

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