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Munitions in German Marine Waters

Munitions in German Marine Waters


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.

-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.

read "assessments"


Several relevant fields where assessed to gain knowledge and to understand, what is not known today.

Munitions-contaminated areas

  1. The map produced for the outcome report (Figure 2, for detailed views see the annex to the outcome report) shows 21 munitionscontaminated areas (7 of which are munitions dumpsites) in German marine waters of the North Sea, as well as 50 munitionscontaminated areas (8 of which are munitions dumpsites) and 21 suspected areas in the Baltic Sea region.
  2. It is assumed that still only a relatively small proportion of the actual areas contaminated by warfare materials are known. The available information contain gaps. Facts were only partially documented, and many existing archive reports still need to be reviewed.

For Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, for example, there is no reliable data on dumping activities from the time after 1945, although statements by witnesses indicate that such activities were carried out.

Types, properties and amounts of submerged warfare materials

  1. General information about the different kinds and properties of conventional and chemical kind of payload contained, weapons and munitions exists and is accessible to a satisfactory extent.
  2. The situation is unsatisfactory, however, with respect to the quantities of formerly dumped and partially retrieved warfare materials. Because only very incomplete information with limited detail is available, especially for the Baltic Sea area, no precise conclusions can be drawn about the actual amounts of armaments remaining in the sea today:
  • The amount of accumulated conventional armaments in German marine waters is estimated at up to 1,600,000 t--metric tons. As much as 1,300,000 t are assumed for the German North Sea waters. Up to now, the authorities have communicated amounts of up to 300,000 t--metric tons for German Baltic Sea waters. Because of the uncertainty of data from the Baltic Sea area, however, this estimate has to be viewed as somewhat unreliable.
  • The situation regarding data availability is much better for chemical weapons: Around 90 t--metric tons of dumped artillery shells filled with the nerve agent tabun are located in the Heligoland Basin. There are still around 5,000 t--metric tons of warfare agent munitions (bombs and shells) filled with phosgene and tabun buried within a sediment layer up to 8 m--meter thick in the Little Belt. An additional 1,000 t--metric tons of tabun shells originally dumped there were retrieved in 1959/1960. It is believed that additional isolated munitions are present along the former transport routes from the loading port of Wolgast to the dumping area in the Bornholm Basin.

Present condition and interactions of submerged warfare materials with the marine environment

1. Both intact warfare materials as well as completely corroded encasings with no remaining kind of payload have been found in investigations so far. Reliable estimates regarding the past corrosion rates and those to be expected in the future, and hence the release of contained substances into water and sediments, are not possible.

Because of the complex interrelations inherent in this process, the corrosion of submerged warfare materials cannot be generally assessed. A large number of parameters, ranging from the essential properties of the submerged warfare materials (such as material composition and shell thickness), to the local conditions of the environment and the position of the individual warfare material, including the physico-chemical characteristics of the surrounding waters and sediments, would have to be considered for every spot.

2. The abrupt and simultaneous opening of a large number of still-intact encasings as a result of corrosion, followed by a massive release of the contained substances into the marine environment is very improbable because of the diversity of container types, locations and local environmental conditions. A spatially broad and temporally successive release of contained substances (including chemical warfare agents) as a result of corrosion over a period of years or decades from almost all of the still intact containers, however, is considered probable.
Isolated unexplained events in German waters have been attributed to be related to selfdetonations. Explosive ordnance disposal specialists for German waters consider a release of large amounts of explosive-type compounds through self-detonation to be highly unlikely.

3. Released substances or other components of munitions interact with the marine environment in ways that depend on their chemical properties as well as on the physicochemical parameters of the local environment. While some compounds react rapidly with water (hydrolysis) and thus only remain in the marine environment for a short time, a longterm residence (persistence) of compounds that are less soluble in water or less prone to hydrolysis is possible. The conceivable persistence of these substances or their byproducts raises the concern of bioaccumulation (concentration in living organisms, particularly with regard …



Based on the knowledge obtained and assessments made, the working group has developed the following proposals for action.

Historical and technical research

  • Provide the required resources for analysing existing archival information about the locations as well as the types and amounts of dumped warfare materials.
    Archives of the former allied forces, who supervised a large part of the dumping operations, need to be incorporated into this effort as much as possible.
  • Investigate in detail any presence of potential warfare material objects below the sea surface, discovered in the course of targeted studies or by chance. In particular: Request additional investigations by the German Navy of the four objects that have still not been clearly identified in the area of the access corridor to the munitions dumpsite in the Bornholm Basin.
  • Assess whether a systematic location survey for submerged warfare materials should be carried out in German territorial waters and, as appropriate, which prioritisation and methods should be used.

Inspection and monitoring of environmental impacts

  • Develop appropriate methods for assessing and monitoring submerged munitionscontaminated areas, since necessity demands an improvement of the current status of knowledge regarding the environmental impacts of submerged warfare materials. Focus on the study and evaluation of the hazard potential of the nearshore areas as well as the most heavily munitions-contaminated areas.
    Carry out additional investigations to support assessments of the overall situation, which so far have been based on isolated finds. Furthermore, investigations on the susceptibility of different types of munitions to corrosion should be carried out to provide robust information about the corrosiondependent release of warfare material-type compounds into water and sediments.
  • Decide on the need for further action based on the inspection and evaluation of munitionscontaminated areas (vide supra), taking into account ecological, economic and technical aspects. The overriding question for every assessment is whether an immediate danger exists that needs to be averted. Further options can be considered on the basis of the recommendations, all the way up to a remediation.

Handling of hazardous situations

  • Declare a fishing ban for the Helgoland Basin munitions dumpsite, which is already annotated with ‘contaminated (gas munitions)’ on nautical charts.
  • Review and, if necessary, develop guidance documents and rules of conduct for particularly dangerous activities involving direct or indirect contact with the sea floor, and assure the public availability of the relevant information.
  • Assure adequate availability of the recommendation and information document on ‘Fishing up and finding munitions’ developed by the working group.
  • Expand the range of options available for warfare material disposal (explosive ordnance disposal) continuously with new, alternative procedures that integrate up-to-date technological developments.

Channels for reporting and documentation (Effective 2013)

Effective 2013:
With the beginning of 2013 the Joint Dispatch for Waterways Police within the German Maritime Safety and Security Center will serve as a national point of contact. For more information follow the Munitions encountered .

Original Recommendation (Effective 2011):
Advance the development of reporting channels and reporting systems in Germany: Create a central registration office to which all incidents occurring in the German North and Baltic Seas are reported for documentation.
The data collected should be available for various purposes such as periodic reports related to international agreements (OSPAR, HELCOM).

Munitions encountered

In case of encountering munitions or warfare material in German territorial waters or within the German Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) please report to the National Point of Contact in the German Maritime Safety and Security Center.

What to report

Try to forward answers on these questions or send in images:

  • Suggested or identified type of object? (your professional background)
  • Where is the object now? (Coordinates according to WGS 84)
  • Estimated size and weight of the object?
  • What is it made of and state of corrosion?
  • Estimated point of origin? (Trawl route, dredging point etc.)
  • Do you expect immediate assistance?
  • In case of professional EOD: What are you going to do? What did you do with it? (Coordinates of the blast operation)

National point of contact

The Maritime Safety and Security Center serves as German national point of contact related to this topic. Please contact the Waterways Police Reporting and Coordination Center within this framework:

Telephone +49 30 185420-1609
Telefax +49 30 185420-2009

Background Information

According to the German Basic Law (Constitution) the responsibility for safety, security and law enforcement in German marine waters is shared between a number of agencies and public authorities. The areas in charge are divided territorially as well as to different objectives, like fishery, ship security or border patrol. To integrate all these public services according to present requirements, the German Joint Emergency Reporting and Assessment Center Sea was established in 2005 as an intergovernmental agency of maritime related German federal and state agencies. The German Joint Emergency Reporting and Assessment Center uses the same building as the German Central Command for Maritime Emergencies (Havariekommando). All agencies still follow their designated tasks but the common center allows to share information easily and to coordinate resources fast and to good economical results.

Links to international websites related to underwater munitions.


German Programme on Underwater Munitionsc/o State Ministry for Energy Transition, Climate Protection, Environment and Nature

Mercatorstraße 3 - 5, 24106 Kiel

  • Alexander Bach, Chair of the German Programme on Underwater Munitions c/o Ministry for Energy Transition, Climate Protection, Environment and Nature
  • email : i
  • phone : +49 431 988-3450
  • mobile : +49 170 2132925
  • Claus Boettcher, German Programme on Underwater Munitions c/o Ministry for Energy Transition, Climate Protection, Environment and Nature
  • email : i
  • phone : +49 431 988-3460
  • mobile : +49 170 2251415

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