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Pollutants from WWII shipwreck still steering nearby marine ecosystem

The North Sea Wrecks project investigates ship and aircraft wrecks to analyze their possible environmental impacts.

(CN) — The North Sea hosted several key conflicts during both World War I and II, resulting in thousands of shipwrecks, downed aircraft, and chemical warfare agents scattered about the seafloor. In a new study, researchers with the North Sea Wrecks project, say the remnants of those conflicts do not only demonstrate the legacy of warfare in Europe but may also have implications for the current and future marine environment.

In the study published Tuesday in Frontiers in Marine Science, researchers from Belgium’s Ghent University determined that pollutants released by a ship sunk 80 years ago in the North Sea near Belgium are continuing to influence the area’s ecosystem, but not necessarily to its detriment.

The V-1302 John Mahn, originally a fishing trawler before it was pressed into service by Germany’s navy during World War II, now sits more than 100 feet underwater off the Belgian coast. It was the only vessel sunk during the 1942 “Channel Dash” attack by the British during an operation to convey German warships home.

Josefien Van Landuyt, a PhD candidate at Ghent University, and colleagues studied samples taken from sediment around the wreck and a sample from a piece of the ship’s hull. They discovered that hazardous pollutants had seeped into the seafloor surrounding the ship, with the strongest concentration of the toxic remnants occurring closest to the wreck. The samples contained evidence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are chemicals associated with crude oil, coal, and gasoline, along with various heavy metals and explosive compounds.

Van Landuyt explained that analysis did not indicate that V-1302 John Mahn currently poses a environmental threat.

“As far as we can tell, the ship is completely safe to wildlife. Natural attenuation is cleaning up the low concentrations of polycyclic aromatic compounds and the ship is actually an artificial reef where anemones and fish find shelter. This is quite different from the sandy bottom ecosystem generally found in the Belgian part of the North Sea, and showcases a different biodiversity,” she said.

Research indicated that the ship’s microbiome was actually reacting to and countering the introduction of the toxic substances.

“The microbial community is enriched in bacteria able to use these pollutants as an energy source in the samples where we found (still low but) higher concentrations. Indicating that in this case, the contamination is actually addressed by the local microbial community," Van Landuyt said.

Although the study of this wreck didn’t indicate a detrimental environmental effect, researchers are still concerned that that the age of the vessels in the North Sea may mean that the full extent of potential damage may yet to be revealed. Slow-moving underwater corrosion means that dangerous chemicals or compounds could still be safely contained now even 80 to 100 years after they were downed. But given more time, they may become dangerous.

“Within the North Sea Wreck project ten shipwrecks were/are being studied in the Belgian part of the North Sea, based on historical recounts of how ships were sunk. With the data collected now from these studies, we will be able to identify the wrecks who need more studying or need mitigation, which is what I hope will come next. This will allow us to keep the historical valuable wrecks that pose no threat, preserving their cultural heritage and wargrave status, and remove the ones that do,” Van Landuyt explained.

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