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Sunken treasuresThe oceans and coastlines of the world are scattered with thousands of shipwrecks that span thousands of years of history. By some estimates, less than 1 percent of all shipwrecks have been located, and only a small fraction of those have been explored or excavated.
For scientists and historians, each shipwreck is a vessel on a voyage from the past that continues with each new discovery — so let’s batten down the hatches and take a look at the science of some of the world’s most famous shipwrecks.
Mary RoseSlide 2 of 15
The Mary Rose, one of the fastest and most heavily armed warships in the English fleet, sank in 1545 while leading the attack on a French invasion fleet at the mouth of Portsmouth Harbour, on England’s south coast. The only confirmed witness to the sinking reported that the ship rolled heavily after firing all its guns on one side and turned to fire the guns on the other side. Of around 400 crew and soldiers onboard, fewer than 40 escaped as the ship quickly filled with seawater and sank within a few minutes.
Historians and archaeologists still debate the cause of the sinking — the sea may have flooded the open lower gun ports, or the ship may have been overloaded with soldiers, guns and ammunition. One French account of the battle claimed that the Mary Rose was hit by enemy gunfire just before it sank, but no signs of such damage have been found, according to the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth.
The wreck of the Mary Rose was discovered in 1971 by a diving team investigating shipwrecks near Portsmouth. After its identity was confirmed, the wreck was excavated in a series of expeditions over 10 years by a team of more than 500 volunteer divers and support staff on shore. In 1982, the Mary Rose was brought to the surface for the first time in more than 400 years, in a purpose-built lifting frame attached to wires passing through the remains of the hull.
After one of the most costly and complex maritime preservation projects in history, about one-third of the ship’s original hull went on display at the Mary Rose Museum in 1986, along with many of the more than 28,000 artifacts excavated from within the wreck and on the surrounding seafloor. Archaeologists found hand weapons, cannons, tools and armor from the shipwreck, in addition to many personal items that belonged to the crew, such as clothing, coins and letters from home. These items have served as a time capsule of life in the English Tudor period.
Archaeologists have also studied the remains of more than 190 people found in the wreck. Many had suffered from diseases linked to childhood malnutrition, which researchers have interpreted as a sign of poor nutrition in the general population of England at the time. The skeletons of several crewmembers also showed signs of arthritis, likely caused by heavy lifting, and many healed bone fractures — occupational scars of a life of heavy labor at sea.
The Mary Rose Museum was closed to the public in 2013 and opened again in July 2016 after an extensive redesign that now allows visitors to enter the top deck of the wreck through an "air lock" into the climate-controlled gallery. Several recently discovered artifacts from the shipwreck have also gone on display for the first time at the museum, including the painted wooden "Tudor Rose" emblem shown as the ship's figurehead in illustrations from the time.Slide 3 of 15
USS ScorpionSlide 4 of 15
USS ScorpionIn 1968, one the tensest years of the Cold War, the U.S. Navy was more worried than usual. In the first few months of that year, three foreign military submarines had gone missing in unexplained circumstances: one French, one Israeli, and the Soviet submarine K-129, thought to be armed with nuclear warheads. On May 21, 1968, the USS Scorpion was reported missing after failing to make a scheduled radio contact. The Scorpion was a U.S. Skipjack-class sub carrying 99 crewmembers and two nuclear-tipped torpedoes, each with a destructive power of 11 kilotons of TNT, and the U.S. Navy was determined to find the wreck before anyone else could.
The hunt for the USS Scorpion used a statistical method called Bayesian search theory to create search patterns over areas of the seafloor where the wreck was most likely to be found. The method had been developed less than two years earlier, in the search for a missing hydrogen bomb after an American B-52 bomber crashed off the coast of Spain in 1966, and is still used in search missions today.
In October 1968, U.S. Navy searchers located the wreck of the USS Scorpion, lying on the seabed in more than 9,800 feet (3,000 meters) of water, at the edge of the remote patch of the central Atlantic known as the Sargasso Sea. The Navy used an experimental remote-controlled submarine camera sled, an early forerunner of modern remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs).
The discovery of the wreck of the USS Scorpion prompted the U.S. Navy to reconvene a Court of Inquiry to focus on the possible causes of the sinking. A key piece of evidence was a burst of 15 distinct sounds recorded at the time the submarine went missing by an American underwater listening station in the Canary Islands. The recorded sounds were assumed to be noises from the implosion of the sub as it sank below its critical "crush depth," and an analysis of the sounds indicated that the Scorpion had imploded at a depth of around 2,000 feet (610 m) before sinking to the seafloor.
The Court of Inquiry was unable to find a conclusive reason for the sinking, and the tribunal ruled that the destruction of the USS Scorpion was caused by an "unexplained catastrophic event." Later studies of the wreck by U.S. Navy expeditions also found no signs that the submarine was attacked by an external weapon — a popular theory fueled by rumors that the Scorpion had been torpedoed by a Russian submarine in retaliation for spying.
The U.S. Navy monitors the wreck site of the Scorpion to test for radiation leaking from the submarine’s nuclear reactor and two nuclear warheads. So far, no radiation leaks have been reported and the Navy claims that the wreck has had no significant impact on the environment.Slide 5 of 15
RMS TitanicSlide 6 of 15
The discovery in 1985 of the world’s most famous shipwreck, the RMS Titanic, is curiously linked to the Cold War secrecy surrounding the wreck of a U.S. Navy nuclear-armed submarine, the USS Scorpion.
According to deep-sea explorer Robert Ballard, who led the team that found the Titanic, the successful search for the giant ship was funded by the Navy as a cover story for a secret mission to photograph and gather new data about the nuclear submarine wreck, including tests for radiation that may be leaking from its warheads or nuclear reactors. [Image Gallery: Stunning Shots of the Titanic Shipwreck]
After exploring and photographing the wrecks of the USS Scorpion and the USS Thresher, another U.S. Navy submarine that sank in the Atlantic in 1963, Ballard and his team on the Knorr, a research ship operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), had just 12 days left to search for the wreck of the Titanic before they had to return to port, according to WHOI.
But the investigation of the submarine wrecks had provided the explorers with a vital clue: a sinking vessel leaves a trail of debris as it falls to the bottom of the ocean, with the heavier pieces sinking first, while lighter debris is spread in a comet-like tail on the seafloor, depending on the local currents.
Searchers on the Knorr used this detail to locate the wreck of the Titanic, just a few days before the end of the mission, by searching for the trail of debris left by the giant ship as she sank, Ballard told National Geographic magazine in 2008. Then, the researchers followed that trail back to the hull of the ship itself, now lying on the seabed in two parts, at a depth of 12,460 feet (3.6 kilometers) off the coast of Newfoundland.
The 1985 discovery of the Titanic wreck opened new scientific debates about the causes of the sinking. According to research published in 2008, metallurgical studies of samples recovered from the Titanic indicate that the rivets holding the ship’s hull together were not well made nor well placed during the ship's construction. The researchers suggested this poor riveting may have contributed to the damage to the hull caused by the impact with the iceberg.
Another study focused on iceberg activity in the North Atlantic shipping lanes in 1912, and refuted the idea that the Titanic sank in what was an exceptionally busy year for icebergs. One of the same researchers also studied the authenticity of several photographs claimed to have been taken of the iceberg that struck the Titanic.
Scientists have also studied the eventual fate of the RMS Titanic. Expeditions to the wreck have noted that the structure has rapidly deteriorated since it was discovered 31 years ago, and in the 1990s scientists began to study the stalactites of rust, or "rusticles" that grow from cracks and breaks in the hull.
Research published in 2010 found that the rusticles were filled with colonies of iron-eating bacteria, including a new species dubbed Halomonas titanicae, that are slowly devouring all the steel on the entire ship. The scientists predict that in less than hundred years, little will be left of the RMS Titanic but a few inedible brass parts and a large rusty stain on the ocean floor.Slide 7 of 15
VasaSlide 8 of 15