World War II Shipwreck Is Still Polluting the Atlantic 80 Years After Sinking

by Sean Griffin
(Photo by Apic/Getty Images)

A World War II shipwreck continues leaking explosives and other toxic elements into the North Sea to this day, more than 80 years after sinking. The pollutants seep onto the ocean floor of the North Sea and wreak havoc on the surrounding microbiology, as well as the floor’s geochemistry. The recent research study was published Tuesday in Frontiers in Marine Science.

“The general public is often quite interested in shipwrecks because of their historical value, but the potential environmental impact of these wrecks is often overlooked,” said study author Josefien Van Landuyt. Van Landuyt is a doctoral candidate, bioengineer and microbiologist at Ghent University in Belgium.

The wreck of the V-1302 John Mahn lies in the Belgian part of the North Sea. It is one of thousands of ship and aircraft wrecks located along the seabed. This ship first served as a German fishing trawler. Then, it was requisitioned by the German Navy during World War II as a patrol boat.

Six British Royal Air Force Hawker Hurricane aircraft patrolling the Belgian coast attacked the ship on February 12, 1942. In this attack, two aerial bombs struck the ship, causing it to sink quickly. The strike claimed the lives of 11 sailors and sank the ship’s cargo, mostly ammunition and coal.

A group of researchers began studying the impacts of the shipwreck as part of the North Sea Wrecks project. The project investigates wrecks located across the North Sea seabed, according to Van Landuyt. The North Sea borders Belgium, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Great Britain and Germany. All of these countries were involved in WWII.

The study’s researchers estimate that shipwrecks from both world wars across the world contain a lot of pollutants. They estimate these wrecks contain between 2.5 million and 20.4 million metric tons of petroleum products.

German Shipwreck Research Team Aims to Protect Surrounding Ecosystem

Van Landuyt will give the data collected by the project to policymakers. She hopes the data provides them with the right tools to confront the North Sea’s wrecks and its impact on the local ecosystem.

“The research performed within this project will be used to develop a decision-making tool to assess the potential environmental risk a wartime shipwreck poses on the environment, which will hopefully contribute to a safe and healthier marine environment.”

The study team collected samples from the ship’s steel hull and the surrounding sediment. Researchers also gathered samples at a series of increasing distances from the ship to see how far the pollution reached.

The samples revealed metals like nickel and copper, as well as arsenic and explosive compounds. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, chemicals that naturally occur in gasoline, coal and crude oil, were also found.

The team uncovered the highest concentration of metals closest to the ship’s coal bunker. However, it was located in sediment that was deposited in the wake of the wreck. The samples with the most concentrated chemicals were also located close to the ship.