In August 1871 there were clear signs that the Arctic winter was already underway, from ice storms to warnings from the local Inuit community.

Despite this, a fleet of whalers stayed in place in order to capture and kill more bowhead whales.

The 32 large vessels were soon trapped by pack ice near the Alaskan shore of the Chukchi Sea. When it became clear that the winds were not going to shift the ice, 1,119 men, women and children were forced to abandon ship.

They squeezed into small whaling boats, travelling in treacherous conditions to seven ships that had remained in open waters over 70 miles (100km) away. Luckily, all were rescued.

A report into the disaster, published several years later, stated that the crew "barely [made] their escape to the other vessels".

Looking back, it was a disaster that was waiting to happen. When it did, it was a key catalyst that helped bring the US whaling industry to its end. But its story is not over. The graveyard of ships on the Arctic seafloor is still yielding new insights into the disaster.

The western Arctic opened for whaling in 1848. It offered an untapped resource for whales, their blubber and bones.

Whaling was already a formidable industry, bringing commercially-desirable products to the market; most notably oil. It was an era before plastic, so baleen (known as "whalebone") was also extremely valuable: it was used for many household objects in a growing global market.

When whalers started to take walrus in vast numbers there were entire villages that starved

In particular, bowhead whales became increasingly important to the market, because their baleen was used as a stiffener in corsets. "There was this gold rush into the Arctic starting in [the] 1850s, and American whalers were at the vanguard of the rush into the Arctic to get the large bowhead whales," says Eric Jay Dolin, author of Leviathan: The history of whaling in America.

Unfortunately for the whales, this had devastating consequences. In just two decades, the population of bowhead whales in the area had reduced by over 60%.

With this decline, it became harder to hunt whales, so whalers also turned their attention to walruses.

This was problematic for the local indigenous communities, who depended upon walruses for their livelihoods. "That was a staple food for the local Inuit people, and when [whalers] started to take walrus in vast numbers there were entire villages that starved," says Brad Barr of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa).

The profits gained from whaling were too great for anyone to take notice of these impacts.

That is why, even with dwindling whale populations, fleets of whalers continued to venture into ever more treacherous hunting grounds like the Arctic, often at risk of death. In 1845, two ships led by the British captain Sir John Franklin were lost in the Arctic. "The Arctic gained a reputation as a land that ate ships and took men,” says James Delgado, also at Noaa.

The ships were staying later in the year in order to fill their holds with oil and bone

The 1871 fleet was perilously close to following this same fate.

"They knew when the ice was coming in, but the whales were getting fewer, getting harder to catch," says Barr. "So the ships were staying later in the year in order to fill their holds with oil and bone, and so they were used to working at times when the ice was starting to come towards the shoreline."

Until 2015, this disaster was only known through stories and written reports. There was no physical evidence. The local Inuits stripped some of the boats, and others sank.

Barr and colleagues set out to perform Arctic archaeology, in order to find real evidence of the remains. Many had expected there would be nothing there, and that any remnants would have been crushed into tiny fragments.

This was not the case. In early 2016, by mapping 50 sq km of the seabed, they uncovered the debris of at least two of these ships. By using sonar and sensing technology, a "magnetic signature" of the wreckage was easily visible 4-5m below the surface. They were even able to see outlines of the hulls, anchors, and the pots that were used to hold the oil extracted from the whale blubber.

It was the first real physical proof of the disaster

These remains are still there 144 years later because the lower hulls were caught up in an underwater sand bar. This kept some of the remains "more or less intact," says Delgado, who also worked on the project. "They were caught up against this submerged sand bar, and at times burial had taken place… When extreme winter conditions set in, that entire area is basically one frozen block of sea ice."

It was the first real physical proof of the disaster. What's more, the process of finding it heralds a new era of Arctic archaeology in an extremely hostile environment.

Barr and colleagues have now published their findings in a December 2016 report in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology.

The fragments remain on the ocean floor, but they could give a better understanding of marine history if it were possible to analyse them in more detail. Even so, there are other, less obvious insights gained from this type of Arctic archaeology.

Understanding past events like this shows how climate change is having a real impact on the Arctic and the people who live there. "Sometimes we forget that [these] archaeology sites are being eroded away," says Barr.

The ice is melting at increasingly alarming rates

The team were only able to get the results they did because of the dramatic reduction of sea ice due to climate change. Barr calls this the "upside" of climate change.

That is, because the ice is melting at increasingly alarming rates, there are longer windows of time each year in which to conduct research. Barr says the remains probably would not have been found "if the ice hadn't receded," as the team would have struggled to survey the seabed.

Understanding how the ice has contributed to the conservation of the vessels also gives an insight into how the climate is changing. "They help to inform and guide that we have to make adaptations for climate change in the Arctic," says Barr.

"The importance of climate change with regards to Arctic submerged cultural resources is that, in such coastal areas, they are under increasing threat from stronger and more frequent storms, [which are] subjecting ice-free areas to greater 'natural' disturbance."

That this disaster had an impact on the whaling industry is undisputed. Barr calls it a "pretty significant blow". The wreckage cost about $1.6m at the time, which today amounts to roughly $30m.

These two disasters were the nails in the coffin of the commercial whaling industry in the US

Many of the ships came from one area: New Bedford, which Dolin says suffered severe knock-on consequences. "Whenever you lose this much capital it creates a major problem. It sent ripples through the insurance industry and through the whaling industry. There was a lot of investment capital that was lost, so it sent New Bedford reeling."

Whaling was certainly slowing down but it did not stop. The disaster did not dissuade others from returning, at their peril. "There was still a market for baleen," says Dolin.

Five years later on a similar – though smaller – mission, 50 sailors lost their lives. These men had "frozen to death", the Boston Globe wrote.

These two disasters were "the nails in the coffin of the commercial whaling industry in the US," Barr says.

For whales, this was great news. Despite their depleted numbers, there was little in the way of conservation efforts or awareness at the time. "We can decry the slaughter, but in its day these were people simply trying to make a living," says Delgado.

This near-fatal event played a key role in preventing the further slaughter of whales

Although the whalers were aware that whale numbers were in decline, it did not translate into any real concern for the species. Their main concern was for the "economic vitality of the industry", says Dolin, and that they would be out of work if whale populations became too low.

Rather, these disasters may have simply have sped up the inevitable. Whale oil had already started to decline in popularity and cost in the mid-19th Century, because the modern oil industry was well underway. The profits soon became too small to risk perilous whaling expeditions.

Fortunately, bowhead whales were not hunted to extinction. Today, their numbers appear to be bouncing back, though one population remains critically endangered.

The survivors of the 1871 disaster could not have known it at the time, but this near-fatal event played a key role in preventing the further slaughter of whales in the Arctic Ocean.

Melissa Hogenboom is BBC Earth's feature writer. She is @melissasuzanneh on Twitter.

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