Detection of Shipwrecks in Ocean Colour Satellite Imagery




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Digital elevation models of the wreck sites: A: SS Sansip; B: SS Samvurn; C: SS Neutron; D: SS Nippon (Baeye et al 2016).
Detection of Shipwrecks in Ocean Colour Satellite Imagery
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In the publication “Detection of shipwrecks in ocean colour satellite imagery” researchers from Belgium and Northern Ireland explain how satellite images can be used to detect shipwrecks at our coast. Normally shipwrecks are detected through acoustic techniques at sea, but the satellite images that are used to measure suspended matter concentrations seem to be perfect to find shipwrecks.

Locating fully submerged shipwrecks on the seabed is time consuming and expensive. Acoustic research from a ship or laser techniques from a plane are the main methods used to detect and investigate these shipwreck sites. Close to the shore, waterborne techniques are less effective because of the low depth and because of the high turbidity. This zone represents a challenging area for archaeologists in the search for fully submerged archaeological sites. In this study, researchers of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, the School of Environmental Sciences (Northern Ireland) and of the Flemish Hydrography describe a new methodology to detect the presence of submerged shipwrecks using ocean colour satellite imagery in turbid waters.

In this study, four shipwreck sites near the port of Zeebrugge were investigated. Sansip, a 135 x 17 m US Liberty cargo ship with a draft of 8.5 m sank after being mined on December 7th 1944. On September 11th 1997 the fishing vessel N12 Arthur struck the site and sank adjacent to Sansip. Samvurn, measuring 129 x 17 m, sank after being mined on January 18th 1945 underway from Antwerp to London. 7 crew and nine soldiers died. Nippon, a 138 x 18 m Swedish steamship sank on September 14th 1938 after colliding with another vessel. Neutron, a 51 x 8 m Dutch steel cargo vessel, foundered and sank on August 3rd 1965 after hitting a wreck, presumed to be Sansip.

Suspended matter

Wrecks generate Suspended Particulate Matter (SPM) concentration signals. The plumes of SPM extend downstream for up to 4 km from wrecks, and can be detected by high-resolution ocean colour satellite sensors such as Landsat-8 (launched in 2013). At RBINS scientists use the ocean colour data to derive SPM concentrations. The resulting maps are compared to the bathymetric multibeam echosounder data of the Flemish Hydrography.


The ability to detect the presence of submerged shipwrecks from space is of benefit to archaeological scientists and resource managers interested in locating wrecks. Landsat-8 data is free and therefore this method is an inexpensive alternative to acoustic and laser survey techniques. It could be used to supplement the traditional survey techniques.  Another benefit of the SPM detection technique is that it provides insights into hydrodynamic and sedimentary processes acting on the sites.


This work was supported by the HIGHROC project (HIGH spatial and temporal Resolution Ocean Colour products and services) and the BRAIN-be project INDI67.

Even NASA is impressed by this paper and dedicated a website page to it!


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