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The ticking time-bomb at the bottom of the Baltic Sea (economist.com)
312 points by neverminder on April 21, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 92 comments

My father, who was in the Royal Engineers at the end of WWII and for a few years after, was always worried about the "tons" of mustard gas and explosives that he and his colleagues were ordered to dump into the Irish Sea. He told me that some of the explosives were so unstable that they "sweated" nitroglycerine, and they used to run their finger down the sides of the explosives and flick it at each other to make small bangs. Bear in mind that although they had explosives training they were basically kids.

He also mentioned that the seas were often so rough that they did "dump and run" as soon as they were out of sight of land. It was supposed to go into the deepest sections of the Irish Sea, but he claims a lot of it was closer to Scotland.

It was the mustard gas, and other nasties that he wouldn't talk about, that worried him right up until he passed away in his eighties. They knew it wasn't the right thing to do, but at that time you followed orders and did as little as possible until you got demobbed.

Terrifying. But like you said, basically kids during the war forced to do a lot of things most modern day guys could never even imagine.

>>> most modern day guys could never even imagine.

Oh no need for that. Grab a local news paper, check the crime section. 'modern day guys' are not so smart and innocent, are they?

My gradma digged trenches and stacked bodies, at the age of 14 or 15. Modern day guies don't do that, or something similar. War time is dramatical different.

Eh, go look at footage out of Syria or parts of Africa--it's more a comment on the state of the civilizations going to war.

I'm not so sure. I can remember the feeling I got when the news during the Iraq war showed a couple of kids laughing like it was a big joke and listening to Metallica as they shelled Fallujah. In the US 40% of active duty members are less than 25 according. Humans have a long history of getting their young ones to do their dirty work. http://www.militaryonesource.mil/12038/MOS/Reports/2011_Demo...

Maybe in the Western World.

Right now there are thousands of child soldiers around the world doing things much worse than digging trenches. There are also a number of armed conflicts that are currently ongoing (although they aren't anywhere near the scale of something like WWII).

I'm pretty sure some modern guys are already planning to do it again in the Mediterranean


Well, no. They're not just dumping anything over the side - they're using a mobile chemical reactor called the Field-Deployable Hydrolysis System to break the chemical weapons agents down into far less nasty, but still quite toxic, waste. Which isn't being dumped over the side, either.

See here for some technical comment on the FDHS: http://guests.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/4158/cw-destructio...

My dad worked out of Stranraer at that time, the dumping area was called Beaufort's Dyke. If you search for the name there are all sorts of interesting documents, especially if you get the PDFs.

I heard similar stories from him, including one where a some of the 'goods' ignited whilst still on the barge and a couple of very brave men dumped the burning cases to sage the barge. Likewise, there are things he didn't talk about too.

The shelf life of most chemical weapons is fairly short -- and tends to be shorter the nastier they are.

We're mainly talking mustard gas. Germany did use nerve gases tabun, sarin, and soman [1]. But nerve gases degrade after a period of a few weeks to a few years. I'm not sure what they degrade into, admittedly, and I doubt it's nice.

Mustard gas lasts longer, but is also much less potent. Military use is about 1 tonne for 2.6 square kilometres [2]. So if it were just leaking into the open sea -- even one as small as the Baltic -- it wouldn't be an issue. The problem is really if something re-concentrates it -- currents, or location, or possibly going up the food chain (does that happen?)

So my initial feeling is it's not quite as catastrophic as it sounds. Would love to hear from somebody better-informed, though.

1 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germany_and_weapons_of_mass_de...

2 - http://www.iraqwatch.org/perspectives/rangwala-powell-020503...

> Mustard gas lasts longer, but is also much less potent

Maybe much less potent in killing instantly (ie in combat use), but what about long-term low-dosage exposure?

> possibly going up the food chain (does that happen?)

Bio-accumulation in general is very real thing, and imho the most worrisome aspect of this situation.

The issue with chemical weapons is that they are very reactive. Mustard gas would react with the organics floating around in the ocean very quickly.

As for the hydrolysis product of mustard gas, thiodiethanol, it's not very toxic. The MSDS claims acute toxicity in rates starts around 6.5g/kg. So a human would need to consume ~500g in order to see toxicity.

Also, thiodiethanol is quite reactive itself. It would likely be oxidized to the carboxylic acid. Wouldn't surprise me if bacteria could metabolize it.

Yeah, given the existence of life at deep-sea sulfuric vents, I wouldn't be surprised if the newly evolved bioorganisms were colonizing the containers at their leakage points.

There are no deep-sea sulfuric vents in the Baltic Sea.

The point is the ocean is known to contain bacteria which can metabolize chemical sources in the form of sulfur compounds. There's a chance that any slowly leaking CS munitions in the Baltic Sea could host bacterial colonies which break down these compounds.

I think danohuiginn's question is more whether the bio-accumulation happens faster than whatever degradation.

This abstract suggests that bacteria are utilizing the thiodiglycol that the mustard gas ends up releasing into the water:


This one suggests that the thiodiglycol is still harmful:


But that it isn't nearly as harmful as the mustard gas.

Highly recommended book that touches on bio-accumulation: Zodiac by Neal Stephenson (http://www.amazon.com/Zodiac-Neal-Stephenson/dp/0802143156)

Gulf of Mexico is a big dumping ground too


thirty plus million pounds of assorted weaponary

My favourite is the sunken ship packed with explosives in the Thames estuary. As it rusts, it could explode at any time, sending a small tidal wave up the river and into London.


Some very dark part of me wants to dive this ship.

Seems to be the way we dump that stuff. Waters of Italy house a time-bomb as well. http://www.euronews.com/2014/02/21/troubled-waters-the-hidde...

Also: Belgium waters have been a dumping ground for (mustard?)gas.

So my initial feeling is it's not quite as catastrophic as it sounds. Would love to hear from somebody better-informed, though.

If all is spread evenly. But as you said, currents and other factors might cause troubles in a few areas. Maybe is better to disturb them, or break them open and have as much control it much as they can over this issue.

What is concerning is the marine life that ends up on people's dinner plates containing such chemicals or some weird disease because of the exposure to it.

Not just in the Baltic Sea. There's a dump of WWI poison gas grenades 2km off the Belgian coast, buried in the sand. You can see the marker buoys from the beach.

Here's a little map of the area: http://www.wereldoorlog1418.nl/gasoorlog/paardenmarkt.html

EDIT: Then there's the stuff on land. In Belgium they still recuperate between 100 and 200 tons of ammunition per year. Farmers post them by the side of the road for the bomb disposal teams to pick up. A couple of workers in Ypres (yes, that Ypres) died last month unintentionally digging up a WWI bomb.

Some very pricy real estate in Washington, DC, the Spring Valley neighborhood, was once part of a chemical warfare station. When WW I ended, the staff followed the approved disposal method--dig a hole, roll in the shells, cover the hole. A lot of nasty stuff, mostly as I recall mustard gas shells, has been dug out and disposed of more properly over the last 30 years or so. But one reads now and then of concern about arsenic levels in the topsoil.

Same with some of the choicest real estate in the SF bay area, which came under sustained barrage back when Stanford University was a munitions range.

That was during WWI, when the U.S. Army was targeting Portola Valley, which is now one of the wealthiest zip codes in the nation:

http://www.worldwar1.com/tripwire/pdf/campfremont.pdf "Camp Fremont troops engage in mobile artillery practice, near what is now Dish Hill. The guns—almost certainly 75mm field guns of British or American manufacture—are aimed toward Foothills Park and Portola Valley, where 75mm shells were unearthed as recently as November 2010... five million rounds of World War I-era ammunition fired in a four-month span on the foothills where the camp conducted its war games..."

That document doesn't say anything about Woodside (where Steve Jobs famously battled with the town) just a tad to the north. But Woodside was settled earlier. Mountain Home Ranch was settled in 1839 and and a local church opened in 1893 -- all of which likely convinced the Army to shift its artillery range to the south...

The Ghost Fleet in San Francisco Bay had me interested after going past it via train. Not sure what the plan is for it, but leaving stuff like that to rot won't be doing the sea any good. The well maintained shipyard that isn't too far from me has one hell of a high heavy metal count and I can't imaging The Ghost Fleet is doing any better. http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suisun_Bay

Re. EDIT: This phenomenon is common enough that it's got a name -- it's known as the "iron harvest".


A friend of mine is leading the redevelopment of some beachside land that was a WW2 target range.

Somehow I don't think its former life will make it into the glossy marketing brochures. The whole area has been checked with metal detectors though, so I doubt any surprises will show up.

65,000 tonnes of chemical sounds humongous, but picturing the volume makes it look a lot smaller (not trying to diminish the potential gravity of the problem).

Assume the chemicals have a density of 1 g/cm^3, the same as water, which seems reasonable for organic liquids and such. Then a cubic meter weighs a metric tonne. So 65,000 tonnes is the same as a cube that is 40 meters on a side.

Another visualization: 1/5 of the volume of oil that can be carried by a Very Large Crude Carrier supertanker according to Wolfram Alpha:


EDIT: Without diminishing the potential gravity of the problem, but trying to visualize what 65,000 tonnes looks like, I'm surprised it doesn't look as big as I thought it would.

If we're talking about chemical weapons, that sounds like a lot of chemical weapons to me.

>65,000 tonnes of chemical sounds humongous, but picturing the volume makes it look a lot smaller

Well, the volume of chemical weapons it takes to take down an entire city of millions is much much smaller than this.

Maybe I just have a hard time reasoning about large numbers, but thinking about it terms of 1/5 of the capacity of a supertanker makes it seem much more serious to me than just reading the number 65,000 tonnes.

It may sound small by volume, but it sounds pretty big by potential effect. Especially if we're talking about compounds that can bioaccumulate and move up the food chain. We worry about the mercury content of tuna, what happens when the tuna has an appreciable amount of whatever-mustard-gas-breaks-down-into?

Thiodiglycol. It's not a serious issue, I'm more worried about the mustard gas.

Not only Baltic Sea is really, really small and shallow sea with small circulation of water, but also it is one of the (or the most depending on source) dirtiest one. There are huge projects to return sea life to it - and now with chemical waste leaking all this can be pointless. Also Baltic Sea is important for fishing industry for some countries - so there is huge danger of getting heavy metals etc getting in to food circulation and causing long term effects on whole populations.

Well, all the gold in the world is a cube 21m on a side. (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gold ) So this is 8 times as much as all the gold in the world. Which seems like a lot.

There used to be -- and really still is -- this cavalier attitude about dumping stuff into the sea, because it gets diluted so much. Disposing nuclear waste this way has only been banned since 1993[0]. And of course more recently, the ocean was where much of the pollution from the Fukushima incident was directed.

Or take sea-faring ships, who dump both grey and black water (ie. untreated sewage) into the sea; I understand this is slowly being subject to some regulation. Ships also run with heavy oil which has its own set of issues (mostly sulfur content and NOx); in terms of CO2 emissions shipping is super efficient though.

[0] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ocean_disposal_of_radioactive_w...

"Or take sea-faring ships, who dump both grey and black water (ie. untreated sewage) into the sea; I understand this is slowly being subject to some regulation. "

Some? Some? Talk to a sailor about that one. The coast guard does not screw around with that at least in territorial waters and what exactly can be dumped where is highly regulated.

I wouldn't worry about the untreated sewage, after all, a lot of fish poop in the sea every day. The city I work in has determined its cheaper to pay EPA fines and dump raw sewage right off shore every time it rains, rather than make the substantial civil engineering investments to fix the system. I'd worry more about dish washing detergents and cooking oils and the like, unlike plain old sewage, the environment has very little natural experience with that kind of stuff.

I recall reading some proposal for dumping nuclear waste in the Marianas Trench. The rational had something to do with tectonic shifting eventually pushing the waste into the Earth's mantle.

The subduction zone off Vancouver, BC is also a place for this, and off Chile is even better.

The problem is the subduction zones are very slow -- on the order of 25 meters per 100 years, at most. The waste isn't particularly threatening past 10-20k years.

I still believe in reprocessing as the best solution.

Is there something missing from the article or am I going mad? I don't understand how people came to the rational conclusion that it would be ok to dump thousands of tons of this stuff into the sea. It seems to me that people collectively agreed to create a guaranteed disaster.

The problem was that they had thousands of tons of this stuff, all of it rather close to lots of people, all of it designed to kill lots of people, lots of it was unstable, and lots of people wanted to obtain & abuse it. The only apparent way to "make it go away" was to dump it in the sea ("out of sight, out of mind"). They knew it wasn't a good idea, but it was a whole lot better than any other solution they could come up with on short notice. Many decades later we're still postulating "what if" rather than dealing with actual consequences.

Most people similarly discard household toxins: they know throwing batteries/CFLs/paint/etc in the general-purpose dumpster is not "ok", but for them it's an easy & effective solution. Disastrous for someone/something somewhere sometime, but not for "me, now".

Ecological concerns weren't really a thing until the '60s. There was a widespread belief that oceans could "take care" of everything; besides, in 30 years we'd all be flying to some other planet anyway.

Which is still the belief in some parts of the world as well as some people.

Silent Spring was published in 1962. It brought environmental problems to mainstream Americans. As a result of new awareness the EPA was created.

What seems "obvious" now might not have always been obvious.

Lets not forget there have been over 2,000 (known) nuclear weapons test in the world. 1032 done by the US alone, most in Nevada. It is well known that these tests released massive amounts of radiation that affects human health. Clouds carried the radiation across the United States into the Mid-West and Northeast and deposited it with rain.[1][2][3][4]

[1] http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=390963

[2] http://www.sciencemag.org/content/220/4592/18.abstract?sid=e...

[3] http://www.ieer.org/latest/iodnart.html

[4] http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/pub/fallout-from-nuc...

For me the best line was later in the article:

> While this is worrying, some scientists argue that most of the containers will in all likelihood remain sealed for decades to come...

"Thus solving the problem once and for all." "But--" "ONCE AND FOR ALL."

The model they're operating under is a bell curve of failure rates where the bell is thankfully very wide and centered many decades in the future.

Made up numerical example, if you have a lake where the bacteria can literally eat one barrel of crude per month, and 10 barrels at the bottom of the lake, you're in pretty good shape if one breaks open at a time spread over a century, but fairly well screwed if all 10 rust open at the same time at the six month mark.

Given their understanding that the stuff likely wouldn't leak for a long time, they agreed to (maybe) create a huge disaster (far into the future). Yep, that sounds pretty normal to me. Especially considering this solution was probably less expensive than the alternatives.

Hell, sounds like most kick-the-can-down-the-road politicians we have today, regarding a whole slew of issues. It's nice to see how far we've come in 70 years. 8-P

I lived on the Danish island of Bornholm in the middle of the Baltic in the 80s. The island is basically surrounded by mustard gas dumping grounds. Back then many local fishermen were seriously wounded by accidentally pulling mustard gas bombs up in their nets.

And then there are 28,500 containers of radioactive waste, dropped into the English Channel between 1950 and 1963: http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/legacy-danger-old...

[..] at a depth of 124 meters (406 feet) just kilometers from the French coast.

Thanks for adding this. It's much, much more informative than the Economist article

In fact, I think it deserves to be posted by itself, so I've submitted it as https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7620544

HELCOM referenced in that article also has relatively good overview of the situation and links to further info:


Don't forget the atomic bombs and H-bombs:

* Dozens of Atomic Warheads Lost In Sea by Superpowers, Study Says: http://www.nytimes.com/1989/06/07/us/dozens-of-atomic-warhea...

* Missing for 50 years - US nuclear bomb: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8107908.stm

The first link you posted mentions the USS Iowa Gun Turret explosion, another shocking tale of negligence.


Fascinating read. Thanks.

There is no chance nuclear bomb on the sea bed would blow up suddenly. Radioactive materials would leak into the sea, but pollution will be much less than radioactive water from Fukushima. Not saying that it is not bad, but not as bad as it sounds.

I grew up in a sleepy little town and I lived about 800M from the DOW plant that made 245T and agent orange components. Apparently surplus was dumped in and around the surrounding areas which as time went on became populated with people raising families. Proving the effects of chemical contamination is no easy feat. http://www.bhopal.net/worldmap/new_zealand_more.html

Recently navy mine hunters set off an old british mine in the sea just outside my office. It wasn't too big, which is interesting because the shock wave was. There are some videos from controlled demolition on the net but the shock wave in the ground just has to be experienced.

I read an article about it in a polish science magazine many years ago. I'm surprised that given the potential catastrophic consequences of this, no one seems to be doing anything about it. We knew about this "time-bomb" for decades. Can anything be done about it?

I guess it's time to get used to the thought that "holiday on a beach" will soon mean visiting Croatia.


I read an article about it years ago. According to it, the Allies were supposed to dump those weapons into the ocean, but they didn't care to go so far, so they dropped them into the Baltic instead.

I remember reading somewhere that this practice still exists today. That jets dump their payload in the sea before landing. As I recall it was a landing area in/around Italy during the Iraq conflict. Makes sense if you think about it, takeoff and landing are risky. Anyone care to chime in with some knowledge?

I know of two situations when ordnance is ejected prior to landing

1. Hang-ups, where the release command was given over target but the ordnance didn't separate. Usually this requires the entire weapon rack ( such as a BDU ) to be ejected using the emergency explosive charges.

2. Trap-weight limits; the old-gen F/A-18s were crippled by this problem, wherein they couldn't recover to ship carrying the ordnance with which they launched. Particularly if they topped-up from a tanker on the return leg this could necessitate dumping unused ordnance.

I think #2 is much less of a problem now with the Super Hornets.

In general, after several decades of toting 2,000 lb Mk 84 bombs, ordnance is returning to smaller sizes due to the concentration of effect possible with precision guidance. 500 lb bombs are commonplace now, and sometimes even smaller. So this should also reduce the frequency of dumping.

Munitions are expensive, I understand that sort of dumping only happens in distress situations.

I remember reading how U.S. Navy dropped 4 bombs to Great Barrier Reef.


Or, right-click the link and open in a new private window.

I found an article related to this, [0].

Apparently they dumped stuff in the North Sea as well. The dumping locations that are known of are mostly the deeper parts. The Baltic is 459m at maximum depth while the North stacks a chilling 700m.

I think the dumping locations in the North Sea would be easier to find (The North has been mapped fairly comprehensively due to oil and gas exploration) but harder to deal with (it's tough as hell). The Baltic is smaller and surrounded mostly by land, so I'm guessing the Baltic would be hit harder.

[0] http://www.chemsea.eu/characterization_and_mapping.php

And they're about to dump some more into the Mediterranean unless we do something about it: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7620714

No, they're destroying the weapons at sea, not dumping them.

This may be a dumb question, but why were they tossed into the ocean? Was it because there was no alternative? Or they just wanted them away from potential users of them?

Where else should they have dumped this stuff? That's not meant to be a glib response. It was (and perhaps still is) a serious quandary. Should they have buried these munitions in a field somewhere? In mine shafts? In a remote section of the Alps or Pyrenees? I'd imagine that all of these alternatives would have placed the weapons in closer proximity to humans and civilization, with an accordingly greater risk of catastrophe, at a similar ecological cost.

Consider, in addition: 1) that the weapons were unstable and rapidly degrading, which meant time was not on anyone's side; 2) a third World War seemed not just possible, but perhaps probable, especially as tensions mounted between the Soviets and the Western allies. Very quickly after WW2, the United States realized it did not have the manpower to repel a Soviet land invasion in Europe; in fact, it was outnumbered and outgunned by a significant margin. So the US and its allies very much perceived themselves to be in a race against the clock.

In retrospect, it's east to wring our hands about how these weapons were disposed of. But there were very few choices available, all of them onerous. Given the choice back then, i.e., "Do I want this stuff in the ocean, in the groundwater, or under Soviet control?" policy makers found the ocean to be the least of three evils.

Of course, the best thing to have done would have been to disassemble the munitions and render their contents chemically inert. The infrastructure, specialized labor force, resources, and time to do this were not on hand.

Interesting. I had thought of "We may have to fight another war" but not that it would be too hard to dig a very big hole and bury them under a mile of concrete. (Do with them whatever we do with nuclear waste - granted we didn't have much nuclear waste in 1945)

We should also note that a lot of these weapons -- particularly, the ones seized from the Nazis -- were advanced beyond the technical understanding of the generals who'd seized them.

These bombs and rockets, including their chemical propellants, oxidizers, and payloads, were designed by the world's top rocket scientists, in an era where perhaps a few dozen of those people even existed. Disposing of these things safely and securely would have been a bit like disposing of some alien death ray that turned up in the Arctic permafrost.

Add to this the fact that most of Europe was a bombed-out husk in the aftermath of the war. We're talking entire countries reduced to Third World status. We're talking nonexistent transportation infrastructure. Civil unrest. The threat of riots, uprisings, and invasion on all sides. Factories and assembly plants blown to rubble. Millions of the Continent's best, brightest, and most capable workers annihilated or driven off. Most of the Continent's brain trust being frantically courted by either side of the emerging Cold War battle lines. Total chaos, more or less.

Even getting our hands on enough cement to bury the weapons might have been difficult, given resource and time constraints.

Good points. Easy to take the history for granted.

Thanks, and very sorry for the rambling on this topic! I just have a fascination with the post-WW2 / early Cold War period.

You've got a box full of agonizing death. It's unstable. Doing anything to neutralize it will be both hideously expensive and risky. Over there is, well, the ocean. Your move.

Basically the allied powers had just conquered Nazi Germany and no one was 100% sure that victory was forever. Now imagine a "Werewolf" movement re-capturing a chemical weapons arsenal.

Therefore better to just get rid of the stuff ASAP.

This is an interesting article, and the comments are even more interesting, highlighting other similar scenarios that have happened around the world.

I'm more curious if we think we'll learn from these and in the future try to make better decisions (which hopefully means we'll avoid production in the first place, which means... well, I live in a Disney world sometimes OK?). Sometimes it's depressing how short term the collective memory of humanity seems to be, what with bubbles and crises repeating themselves every couple of generations.

See also:


Which is wrecked in the Thames Estuary with 1.4KT of TNT onboard.

* 286 × 2,000 lb (910 kg) high explosive "Blockbuster" bombs

* 4,439 × 1,000 lb (450 kg) bombs of various types

* 1,925 × 500 lb (230 kg) bombs

* 2,815 fragmentation bombs and bomb clusters

Surprised that we are 70+ comments into this thread and not one mention of a similar scenario right off the coast of San Francisco:


That's a known one, then there are the ones from the Soviet union.

The similar US operation was cheerfully named CHASE (Cut Holes and Sink 'Em): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_CHASE

I came here to make this comment. Interestingly enough, VX poison gas (think The Rock, but less face-melting) was disposed in this way before they tried incineration and chemical means.

Request: someone please post a tl:dr


dumping trash into the ocean is like playing morbid peak-a-boo: what is not seen does not exist until it suddenly reappears.

This piece of "journalism" is pure speculation.

I've been thinking of moving to Poland from the U.S. for a few months now. This sort of thing doesn't necessarily make me not want to go, but it does make me angry how the U.S. and other countries treat the majority of the world like our own, personal dump. And it makes me wonder how well Americans would be received by the locals once people start coming down with cancer and other horrible diseases that we essentially are the direct cause of.

"Under an agreement reached at the Potsdam Conference in 1945, Britain and the Soviet Union dumped around 65,000 tonnes of Germany’s chemical weapons stockpile into the murky depths of the Baltic Sea in 1947-48."

What does America have to do with this?

> What does America have to do with this?

America didn't go to war to stop it, so obviously things that happen in the Baltic Sea are the fault of America. Or something, I don't know.

>And it makes me wonder how well Americans would be received by the locals once people start coming down with cancer and other horrible diseases that we essentially are the direct cause of.

Except the United States has already poisoned their own people with all those nuclear weapons test in Nevada. As I've pointed out in another comment here. (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7620859)

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