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Lost ammunition in the sea: Danger for people and the environment

Old ammunition in the Baltic Sea
Old ammunition in the Baltic Sea© Jana Ulrich | GEOMAR

Our seas are polluted by considerable quantities of conventional and chemical munitions. More than 1.6 million tons are stored at the bottom of the North and Baltic Seas. After more than 70 years, old munitions on the seabed are still a danger to humans and the environment, as they release toxic substances such as TNT, mercury and lead as pollutants. The largest quantity comes from targeted dumping after the end of the Second World War. An emergency program is now to ensure that the munitions are salvaged and destroyed. Sea Help spoke to Dr. Wolfgang Sichermann from Seascape GmbH, who is coordinating the program on behalf of the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection (BMUV).

Around 1,600,000 tons of old munitions are stored in German marine waters. The explosives they contain are slowly leaking, their compounds are toxic and can cause cancer.

When people are working on the seabed, fishing for munitions or anchoring in such areas, there is an immediate danger to life and limb.

According to the Geomar Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research Kiel, one of the world’s leading institutions in the field of marine research based in Europe, munitions are even clearly visible on the seabed in the Baltic Sea and can therefore be easily documented and mapped using diving robots.

Research has shown that compounds typical of explosives also spread into the water beyond the dumping areas.

This pollution will increase as corrosion progresses and the risks will continue to rise if the contaminated sites are not cleaned up.

 

Munition Altlast in der Ostsee & Nordsee
Overview map© Land Schleswig-Holstein

 

Rising temperatures and increasing storms accelerate the decay of ammunition

In accordance with the coalition agreement, the German government has therefore decided on an immediate program to pilot the recovery and destruction of ammunition and has made a total of 100 million euros available for this purpose by 2025.

According to an announcement by Federal Environment Minister Steffi Lemke (Greens), the construction of a mobile, floating industrial facility for the recovery of old World War II munitions is to begin this year. The aim is “to start pilot projects for the recovery of ammunition in the dumping areas as quickly as possible”.

The construction of a special platform for the recovery of old World War II munitions is to begin this year

Dr. Wolfgang Sichermann (Seascape GmbH)Dr. Wolfgang Sichermann (Seascape GmbH), who is coordinating the immediate action programme on behalf of the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection (BMUV), answers the most important questions concerning recreational shipping in the SeaHelp interview. (Image: Dr. Wolfgang Sichermann [© D.Moêllenhof])

What exactly does the immediate action program for munitions contamination entail? Is there a timetable for its implementation?

Dr. Sichermann: The aim of the €100 million immediate action program for munitions waste in the North Sea and Baltic Sea is to show how large quantities of munitions waste can be systematically and safely recovered and disposed of in an environmentally friendly manner.

The program is entering its decisive phase this year: from early summer 2024, the testing and further development of existing salvage technologies in the Bay of Lübeck is planned. The findings and experience will be incorporated into the planning and development of a mobile, floating industrial facility for disposal – often referred to as a platform, but the exact design of the facility is still open. Its construction is planned for 2025. At the same time, the future operator is to be determined and long-term financing secured by the federal and state governments.

How much ammunition is currently in the German sea? Which area is more affected, the North Sea or the Baltic Sea?

Dr. Sichermann: Experts estimate that there are 1.6 million tons of contaminated sites, 1.3 million in the North Sea and 300,000 tons in the Baltic Sea. This is a maximum assumption for the North Sea; it could also be significantly less. The figures for the Baltic Sea are considered reliable. It is important to know: These figures describe the weight of the total bodies such as bombs, sea mines or cartridges. The weight of the explosives contained is significantly lower. Large quantities of contaminated sites are concentrated in just a few areas. These munitions dumping areas are well known. In the Baltic Sea in particular, some of the contaminated sites in these areas lie together in large piles.

 

 

The figures say it all: there is much more in the North Sea. However, the salvage and disposal of old munitions in the Baltic Sea is currently considered more urgent: in particular, the risk of toxic explosives scattering from rusting, often already open munitions is considered greater in the Baltic Sea. This is mainly due to the fact that the water here only renews itself very slowly: researchers assume that the Baltic Sea water takes around a hundred years to completely replace itself. The Baltic Sea is therefore basically a stagnant body of water – in contrast to the North Sea, where the tides ensure that the water is constantly changing.

In addition, the requirements for industrial clearing and destruction in the North Sea are much more complex due to the effects of ebb and flow. Drifting and sedimentation make it more difficult to find the contaminated sites at all. Poor visibility and strong currents make it more difficult to handle the munitions under water. That is why we are concentrating on the Baltic Sea in the first steps so that we can then transfer the findings.

 

 

What kind of ordnance lies on the seabed? What is their condition? How many chemical munitions are involved?

Dr. Sichermann: There are all kinds of munitions, from small cartridges for small arms to half-ton bombs from land, air and sea warfare. The Allied victorious powers wanted to completely disarm Germany, which is how the sinkings came about. Ammunition was also thrown overboard on the way to the sinking areas to save time. There are also contaminated areas along the routes to the areas. There are also unexploded bombs from air raids and laid sea mines, some of which date back to the First World War.

 

 

The lion’s share of dumped ammunition consists of conventional ammunition. However, munitions containing chemical warfare agents were also disposed of in this way. Most of this took place in international waters and at greater depths. In German marine waters, an estimated 90 tons can be found in the North Sea off Heligoland, while a further 5,000 tons lie on the seabed south of the Little Belt in the Danish Baltic Sea.

How great is the danger to recreational boaters posed by munitions in the sea, for example when anchoring on a munitions-contaminated seabed?

Dr. Sichermann: The danger is absolutely minimal if you follow the rules. You are probably referring to the case where a dropped anchor hits ammunition and an explosion occurs. This has not happened in recent decades. Areas and places contaminated with ammunition are marked on the nautical charts with “Unclean, ammunition” or “Fishing and anchoring prohibited”. There are also buoyed restricted areas that are not allowed to be navigated anyway.

What makes old ammunition so dangerous? Are there any particularly dangerous areas that should be avoided by recreational skippers?

Dr. Sichermann: Basically, the old skipper’s rule applies: keep as much distance as possible when a sea mark appears! However, the immediate action program is not aimed at this type of danger. The Federal Ministry for the Environment, which is in charge of the program, is focusing on the effects of rusting munitions that are releasing more and more explosive compounds into the water. These are highly toxic and also carcinogenic. These compounds have now been detected in the marine environment, for example in mussels and fish. An above-average number of sick fish, for example with liver tumors, are found around munitions dumps. During research cruises through the Baltic Sea, scientists were able to detect the explosive compounds in every sample taken. This is partly due to the fact that analysis has become ultra-fine.

Have there been incidents in which contact (with an anchor or fishing nets) has triggered munitions, for example?

Dr. Sichermann: Experts are not aware of any cases in which an anchor has triggered old ammunition. But there was actually a recent case off the British coast in which a mine detonated in a fishing net. In the German Baltic Sea, fishermen know the spots with old munitions very well and fish around them.

Another problem is munitions residue that washes up on the beach, keyword white phosphorus… Remains of munitions are repeatedly found on Baltic Sea beaches. In Schleswig-Holstein it is mostly pieces of ammunition, in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania it is white phosphorus, which resembles amber and ignites when it dries out. So if you are not sure, it is better to leave a piece of amber lying around – or put it in a tin can, place it outside the home and wait at least a day. Other ingredients of ammunition – such as so-called shooting wool – can resemble stones. If your hands become discolored after collecting stones, you should consult a doctor! (Editor’s note: Information on how to deal with suspicious beach finds can be found here.

Are there concerns about the contamination of fish stocks?

Dr. Sichermann: Mussels and fish that live in the immediate vicinity of decaying old ammunition absorb the toxic explosive compounds. These have been detected in the gills and liver of bottom-dwelling fish and cause illness, which can have long-term effects on reproduction. However, the consumption of fish fillets is harmless.

 

 

How exactly does explosive ordnance disposal in the sea work?

Dr. Sichermann: First of all, a distinction must be made between hazard prevention and precautionary measures. Hazard prevention involves removing munitions that pose an acute risk of detonation, for example if they are located in shipping lanes, ports or sea areas where offshore wind farms, submarine cables or pipelines are planned. If explosive ordnance is found – for example by chance or planned exploration – it must first be determined whether it can be handled and is safe to transport. This is done by specially trained divers or with the help of remote-controlled underwater vehicles.

If the explosive ordnance can be safely recovered and transported, it is handed over to the responsible explosive ordnance clearance service of the federal states for disposal on land. If there is an immediate danger from munitions that can no longer be handled, they are taken under water and deposited in a suitable location or – as a last resort – blown up on site. Today, so-called bubble curtains are used during blasting to reduce the sound pressure of the explosions, which endangers marine mammals such as harbor porpoises.

Precautionary measures such as the emergency program are aimed at preventing long-term damage caused by the release of pollutants. This involves many times the amount of explosive ordnance compared to hazard prevention. It is therefore crucial to automate the process described above as far as possible and to carry out environmentally friendly disposal directly at sea in order to avoid the transportation of large quantities of explosives on and over land. From a precautionary perspective, blasting the explosives is not an option, as not all explosive compounds are converted during the explosion and remain in the sea.

When should the recovery be completed?

Dr. Sichermann: The timetable for the immediate action program extends to the completion of the above-mentioned industrial plant and the definition of an operator model and its financing. Ideally, the federal and state governments will participate jointly. This is the start of a generational task. The duration is not yet foreseeable. The plan is to tackle the most dangerous contaminated sites first. This will only happen step by step and will take time. However, I am sure that, as with any new venture, there will be learning effects and efficiency gains.

Further information:

Information on contaminated marine munitions can be found on the website of the Schleswig-Holstein state government. Current information on the immediate action program and background information can be found on the marine protection pages of the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection (BMUV). The Federal Environment Agency also provides valuable information.

SeaHelp on the German North Sea and Baltic Sea coasts:

Northern Europe Operations Center
Blankwasserweg 125 | 23743 Grömitz

Helpline: +43 50 43 112

ostsee@sea-help.eu

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