Scientists disagree on whether old munitions retrieval safe in the Baltic

Exploding a sea mine.
Exploding a sea mine. Source: ERR

The Baltic Sea still holds hundreds of thousands of tons of ammunition left from the two world wars. Since the latter, tens of thousands of tons of chemical weapons containers have also been dumped. Germany has announced plans to retrieve munitions from the seabed, while many scientists doubt the safety of the undertaking.

Politico recently wrote that Germany plans to launch a program worth €100 million for retrieving ammunition dumped in the Baltic. Estimates suggest that German waters alone hold 1.5 million tons of munitions. Following World War II, the allies dumped 15,000 tons of chemical compounds in different containers in the Baltic.

But scientists disagree on whether it is wise to poke something that might end up stinking up the place. The topic's reappearance on the European agenda is likely tied to the Nord Stream explosions last year.

"One area where a lot of chemical weapons were dumped is around Bornholm. The Nord Stream pipeline also lies around 20 kilometers from Bornholm. The effects may have reached the Bornholm area and disturbed chemicals that had long lied dormant there," Piia Jõul, research fellow at TalTech suggested.

Around 70 percent of chemical agents dumped near Bornholm were in aircraft bombs, which do not have thick walls, Jõul said. Bombs that have been photographed and from which samples have been taken have been found to be leaking.

Scientists claim that while the chemical weapons aren't active at the moment, disturbing them might entail risk.

"For example, mustard gas has formed clots. It has a solid layer on top and nothing will happen as long as it is left undisturbed. But should that clot break, active compounds will be released that are harmful to both marine ecosystems and humans," Jõul explained.

While major dump sites have been mapped, toxins were also dumped on the way to these locations. For example, there is an unofficial dump site near Gdansk of which scientists learned only a few decades ago. Chemical weapons have also been dumped in Lithuanian waters. Estonian waters mainly hide tens of thousands of mines and a host of shipwrecks from which fuel has started to leak over the years.

"There is no toxic waste in our waters as far as we know, with the exception of heavy fuel oil or diesel fuel. But no chemicals we know of. This does not mean there absolutely aren't any as the Soviet army was not exactly candid about their activities when they left," Ivar Treffner, marine archeologist for the Estonian Maritime Museum, said.

A conference will be held in Palanga, Lithuania in late September where the EU hopes to launch a joint project during which experts would compile and exchange information on how best to retrieve munitions from the seabed.


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Editor: Marko Tooming, Marcus Turovski

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