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Environment / Climate change

They found a ship under the World Trade Center, and they just worked out where it was built

When scientists revealed last week that they’d finally worked out where the ship found under the World Trade Center site was constructed, the question on most peoples’ lips was, “What ship?”

Here’s the back story, for those who missed it. Four years ago, construction workers excavating for the basement of the new One World Trade Center building at Ground Zero came across an oak hull, about 7m below street level. The ship, which is nearly 10m long, was found just south of the location of the original towers: that’s why no one no one had come across it before. 

Since then, researchers have been trying to figure out where it came from, and now scientists from Columbia University seem to have some of the answers. Using tree-ring analysis, and comparing different species of oak, they’ve established that the ship was probably built from trees growing near Pennsylvania in around 1773, two years before the War of Independence started. They also found what they call “idiosyncratic aspects of the vessel’s construction”, which led them to believe it was built in a small shipyard; and an infestation of something called “shipworm”, which the ship probably picked up on a trip to the Caribbean.

The fact that these findings have been publicised better than the ship’s original appearance is a testament to the PR efforts of Tree-Ring Research, the journal which published the paper (it’s probably their biggest scoop ever). However, it’s still not clear how a ship the length of two cars came to be lodged deep underneath New York City.

 The most likely explanation is that it was buried in the process of land reclamation. Manhattan’s coastline has been expanded several times over the centuries by pouring landfill into shipyards in order to create space for the expanding city. The World Trade Center site lies on the edge of an area filled in during the 1800 reclamation.

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This map shows how Lower Manhattan’s coastline has changed since 1966. The World Trade Center site in marked red. Image: Southern Manhattan Coastal Protection Study.

So it’s likely either that the ship sank in the shipyard sometime between the 1770s and 1800, and landfill was poured on top of it; or that it was deliberately chucked in as part of the landfill material. Let’s hope it was the first – the builders of that little Pennsylvanian shipyard would be heart-broken to know that their “idiosyncratic” efforts were carelessly squashed by New York’s unquenchable thirst for land.
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