The Biggest Problem You’ve Probably Never Heard Of…
By Dr Matt Carter
Dr Matt Carter is a marine archaeologist who has combined scientific, commercial, and technical diving for over a decade. He is the Research Director for the Major Projects Foundation, an International Fellow of the Explorers Club, and a Fourth Element Team Diver.
Unfortunately, I’ve got bad news… whether it’s the effects of coral bleaching, ocean plastics or overfishing we all know our ocean is in trouble.
However, sitting silently in the background is another threat that few people know about and which every day is closer to causing untold damage to marine ecosystems across the globe. This is the threat of marine pollution caused by toxic chemicals leaking from the more than 8,500 potentially polluting shipwrecks (PPWs) that dot the world’s oceans.
But, it’s not all doom and gloom! This is a crisis that can be solved and that is exactly what drives our day-to-day work at the Major Projects Foundation an environmental not-for-profit based out of Newcastle, Australia. Working in partnership with the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Programme (SPREP), and the University of Newcastle, Australia (UON) our mission is to remove the threat these PPW pose to the ecosystems, cultures and livelihoods of the Pacific.
Figure 1: Microbiologist Awei Bainivalu from the University of Newcastle inspects an oil sample from a WWII shipwreck.
The Scale of the Threat in the Pacific
The Second World War in the Pacific saw the sinking of thousands of ships ranging in size from aircraft carriers and oil tankers to merchant ships carrying the bombs and other munitions required for the war. When these ships sank, they not only took the cargo they were carrying to the bottom of the sea, but also the heavy fuel and various lubricants that were required to operate the vessel. Critically, marine pollution experts have estimated that the 3,800 PPW identified in the Pacific Region could still hold anywhere between 565 million and 4.5 billion litresof oil, not to mention thousands of tons of unexploded ordnance!
Figure 2: Matt Carter inspecting leaking unexploded ordnance on a WWII wreck in Palau.
Rust Never Sleeps…
Any diver will tell you that their favourite wreck has changed since they first dived it. Having been underwater for over 76 years, corrosion scientists predict that many PPW in the Pacific will begin to undergo structural collapse between 2021 and 2025. This critical timeframe is made even more urgent by the impacts of climate change including the increasing strength of tropical cyclones throughout the region which already experiences an average of 41 such events per year!
Figure 3: Much of the coral on the wreck of Rio de Janiero Maru was stripped during Cyclone Maysak in 2015. How many more cyclones can these corroding hulls withstand before they collapse and release the oil they still hold?
You Can’t Manage What You Haven’t Measured!
Despite the scale and urgency of the threat that PPWs pose to the Pacific, we are not simply waiting for the oil spills to happen! In 2019 SPREP formally recognised ‘the significant potential environmental threat of oil leaks from the corroding hulls of World War II wrecks’ and together we began a project to mitigate the impact of these wrecks on the Pacific. The first step of this work was prioritizing the 3800 PPW found throughout the region into a list of those posing the highest environmental risk. From this work we established a database that included 55 ‘priority one’ wrecks that urgently need investigating spanning such areas as Iron Bottom Sound in the Solomon Islands, Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands and the world-famous diving mecca of Chuuk Lagoon in the Federated States of Micronesia.
Figure 4: Wrecks such as the Amagisan Maru in Chuuk Lagoon are now artificial reefs but many still potentially contain thousands of litres of toxic fuel oil.
Chuuk Lagoon ‘Ground Zero’ for PPW in the Pacific
Chuuk Lagoon, formerly known as Truk, needs no introduction to wreck divers as the location of over 65 WWII ships and dozens of planes wrecks, most dating from Operation Hailstone in February 1944 in which U.S forces decimated the Japanese merchant fleet anchored in the Lagoon. Some 75 years later in June 2019 MPF mobilised our first field survey to begin assessing the condition and pollution threat of the 19 PPW identified within the lagoon.
Figure 5: Map of Chuuk Lagoon showing the 19 PPWs identified as high environmental risk.
One of the key tools we used for investigating the condition of the PPW in Chuuk was photogrammetry, a process where a wreck is ‘scanned’ by a diver taking thousands of overlapping photos which are then run through a 3D modelling software package such as Agisoft Metashape. From this process we are able to create accurate 3D models of the PPW.
Our main focus for this work was the wreck of the Rio de Janiero Maru as oil leaks from the wreck were thought to have impacted nearby mangroves. Our survey of Rio de Janiero Maru was the first time that any of the wrecks in Chuuk Lagoon had been recorded in this way resulting in the 3D model shown below. From this survey we were able to create a baseline condition assessment of the wreck including a hull integrity assessment that has allowed for a more accurate estimation of the amount of oil that may remain inside the wreck. This information has subsequently been incorporated into a ‘Likelihood of Oil Release’ assessment providing MPF and the Chuukese authorities with a greater understanding of the potential threat that this wreck poses and enabling planning to begin toward the possible removal of the oil from the wreck in the future.
How to (metaphorically) Eat an Elephant?
With thousands of PPWs located across the world’s oceans and each day bringing these ‘ticking ecological timebombs’ closer to collapse we are dealing with a massive challenge. However, what sets this threat apart from many others facing our oceans, is that the required expertise and technology already exist to remove this threat and prevent impending environmental disaster. By raising awareness of this critical issue on Earth Day we are seeking the support of likeminded people to progress our mission to protect the vulnerable ecosystems, cultures and livelihoods of the Pacific. The time to act is now because the cost of doing nothing is too much!
Matt Wears The
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