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Munitions in German Marine Waters


Introduction (2011)

The horrors of war remain on the mind of today's society almost solely via media-composed presentations in the form of films, photographs and written documents. Nevertheless, the legacy of past wars is ever-present in the world of today, in Germany as well as in many other countries of the world.

Last update: 2021.03.19

-When an areial bomb accidentally explodes after lying dormant underground for decades, injuring and killing people, or when white phosphorus from an incendiary bomb is washed onto a German beach, burning the skin of people seeking amber, the wars of the past claim additional victims. The tragedy of such events is obvious and can be traced back to remnants from the world wars. Interactions of 'disposed' munitions with the environment are less obvious, primarily affecting the seas, inland waters and the soil. Our knowledge of the scale of munitionsrelated contamination and its impact on the ecosystem is still incomplete. This is where the outcome report sets out and provides the basis for a systematic approach for dealing with munitions in our seas.

Dimension of the problem

When the problem of pollution by munitions is discussed, a distinction between conventional and chemical munitions is generally made, based on the type of payload contained. Although all types of munitions contain chemicals, fundamental differences in the effects and deployment purposes associated with each type exist.

While conventional munitions contain explosives or incendiary agents (e.g. white phosphorus) and their effect is characterised accordingly by detonation or burning, chemical munitions are distinguished by a payload of chemical warfare agent. Their purpose is not the physical destruction of infrastructure, but rather directly a temporary or permanent incapacitation of humans due to the respective toxic effects of the compounds used. In addition, the psychological component associated with the type of external injuries and the delay before their appearance (e.g. blisters on the skin) needs to be stressed. In contrast to the substances contained in conventional munitions, the hazards posed by chemical warfare agents for people and the environment appear obvious. Hence this kind of munitions has received special attention in the past. However, with respect to the relevant amounts, conventional munitions in particular require closer consideration.

Information about the amounts of sea-dumped munitions is inconsistent. It is estimated that amounts of the order of 1,800,000 ts were dumped in German marine waters. Later on, considerable amounts were retrieved from the sea and destroyed. While the volumes recovered by fishermen prior to 1952 cannot be quantified, disposal companies carried out the salvage and scrapping in the following years up to 1958 of an estimated 250,000 t of previously dumped munitions. It can be assumed that as much as 1.6 million t of conventional munitions are still present in German waters of the North and Baltic Seas, and that around 1,300,000 t of these are located in the North Sea alone.

Although the available data on the dumping of chemical munitions contains some gaps, it still provides a much more extensive and detailed picture than currently possible for conventional munitions. According to reliable information, around 170,000 t of chemical munitions have been dumped in the North Sea (Skagerrak, German Bight) and the Norwegian Sea, and 42,000 to 65,000 t in the Baltic Sea (Bornholm Basin, Gotland Basin, Little Belt). Of these total amounts around 90 t are located in German marine waters off Heligoland, and around 5,000 t lie to the south of the Little Belt between Germany and Denmark, in direct geographic proximity to the German Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). More specifically, in the Heligoland Basin, artillery shells filled with around 12 t of the nerve agent tabun (around 6,000 shells, approx. 90 t) were dumped. Around 5,000 t of bombs and shells filled with tabun and phosgene are located in the area of the Little Belt. Additional tabun shells (69,000 shells, approx. 1,000 t) were removed in 1959-1960 and then re-dumped in the Bay of Biscay. Besides these known dumpsites, it is also assumed that stray munitions lie along the former transport routes from the German loading port of Wolgast to the designated dumpsites in the Bornholm Basin. Vague information about additional dumping activities could not be verified to date.

To clearly depict the situation, a map needs to encompass areas that are known to be polluted with a few tonnes up to thousands of tonnes of munitions, while also containing others for which a contamination is solely based on a reasonable suspicion (see Figure 2). Simplification is necessary for this overview map, but detailed supplemental information for the individual areas is provided in an annex to the outcome report.

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