Deep Sea Hazard: Munitions on the Ocean Floor
Discoveries of old, unexploded bombs buried underground in German cities or rural areas are a fairly routine occurrence. The respective area is evacuated and the bombs then deactivated. But there are also hazardous leftovers from past wars lodged at the bottom of the sea. At INTERSCHUTZ, the German Maritime Museum and the federal and state-level "Munitions in the Sea" expert commission will report on their work.18 Nov 2019
For our "Stories of INTERSCHUTZ", we spoke with Jens Sternheim who, until 2009, was head of the Office for Civil Protection of the State of Schleswig-Holstein and since then has served as chairperson of the federal and state-level "Munitions in the Sea" expert commission.
Mr. Sternheim, it has been a long time since war has taken place on German soil. How acute is the problem of unexploded ordnance today?
The forest fire of Lübtheen, the discovery of alleged white phosphorus from fire bombs on the beach of Scharbeutz on the Baltic Sea and yellow "smoke" belching out of a borehole in the southern port of Helgoland Island – although more than a hundred years have passed since the end of the First World War and 75 since the end of the Second World War, scarcely a week goes by without discoveries of unexploded ordnance in Germany. Relics of the two wars from the last millennium still give cause for alarm today.
What order of magnitude are we talking about concerning those "munitions in the sea"?
There are 1.6 million tons of old munitions buried in German sea waters alone. Many thousands more tons are buried underground in forests, lakes, rivers and dams.
What is the exact task of the expert commission?
Many of today’s firefighters have, thankfully, never lived through a war. But I see it as my responsibility to ensure that our firefighters have access to information on this hidden danger. Whenever explosive ordnance is found, the fire brigade is called upon: at the scene of the incident, for evacuations of the population or as security marshals. Nobody else is going to be tasked with this in the near future. Only well-informed command and control personnel can initiate the appropriate measures and provide the required protection.
How exactly do you go about this? And what is the difference between a North Sea and a Baltic Sea mission?
Any credible contingency begins with a situational assessment. And so the consortium partners of the European-financed "North Sea Wrecks" project also start by systematically shedding light on the darkness of the contaminated sites at the bottom of the North Sea. Their goal is to transfer the state of knowledge on the Baltic Sea to the North Sea context.
Who is coordinating this work, and where do the various threads come together?
The Federal Agency for Real Estate (BIMA) has been working for many years on the professionalization of planning tasks in this field. And the University of the German Armed Forces offers a corresponding Master’s program. But there is still a lot of work to be done in this area.
The problem of "munitions in the sea" requires experts from a wide range of disciplines. How will this be reflected at INTERSCHUTZ?
At our trade fair stand, visitors can join our team of marine researchers, biologists, toxicologists, historians and IT experts in their search for facts about wrecks at the bottom of the North Sea. A team from the German Maritime Museum in Bremerhaven will be bringing the history of the once-proud cruisers, tenders and boats, which today are loaded with thousands of grenades, bombs, mines and toxic ship fuel resting at the bottom of the North Sea.
It’s very dark at the bottom of the ocean. How will you be illuminating this for INTERSCHUTZ attendees?
Images from the Skagerrak, obtained using state-of-the-art marine technology, show how "mustard gas", tough as plasticine, swells from the rust holes of chemical weapons.
The enormous effort involved in the search for sea mines lodged in sediment will also be shown in order to avert dangers for the people who erect wind turbines on offshore construction sites or who lay pipelines in the seabed.
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