January 2017 Issue
Munitions in the Sea:
Time for Global Action
University of Edinburgh, UK
Until the ’70s, it was a commonly accepted solution to dispose of unexploded ordnance (UXO) or munitions by dumping them into the oceans. UXO may contain chemical warfare agents (CWA) or conventional explosives, and the risks associated with their dumping have been underrated for decades. In recent years, however, the problem has been gaining considerable importance, in light of the more intensive use of ocean resources, increasing maritime activity (fishing, sea farming, tourism, energy distribution, oil and gas extraction, etc.) and the fact that, after many decades at sea, most of these munitions are now facing a high-corrosion stage and could leak toxic, even mutagenic products into the marine ecosystem.
The uncertainties surrounding UXO—their exact location in the water and the unknown degree of corrosion and decomposition of explosive/chemical warfare agents—means predicting the risk of detonation or the magnitude of possible release of contaminants is an extremely difficult task. In addition, the known presence on the seafloor of large amounts of munitions has produced a series of specific procedures and national regulations that may differ highly from country to country. As a result, when it comes to clearing operations, almost each nation adopts different strategies and procedures.
Nevertheless, some recent international projects have paved the way for common operations by devising a series of good practices when facing the problem of munitions dumped at sea, making it very clear that the problem needs to be addressed using a holistic approach.
During the CHEMSEA (Chemical munitions search and assessment) project from 2011 to 2014, a broad series of interdisciplinary studies were conducted in the Baltic Sea on current measurements, salinity and temperature distribution, bottom survey (side scan sonar images), chemical analyses, biota communities and biomarker response of organisms to environmental stress. The CHEMSEA project explored the fact that the degradation products of CWA may be different in the environment than those predicted by theoretical chemistry. The project surveyed more than 1,500 sq. km of seafloor and conducted 220 ROV sampling/identification missions.
Also in the Baltic region, the MODUM initiative (Toward the Monitoring of Dumped Munitions Threat), a project from 2013 to 2016 supported by NATO’s Science for Peace and Security Programme, established a cost-effective monitoring network to observe munitions dump sites using research vessels, AUVs and ROVs. MODUM focused on technology application rather than environmental studies, while continuing studies done in CHEMSEA, developing new analytical methods, reducing costs and time of CWA degradation products analysis, and paving the way to new high-resolution numerical models for tracing the transport of contaminants from dump sites via resuspension and currents.
Funded by the EU, the recently launched project DAIMON (Decision aid for marine munitions) will be capitalizing on past projects, proposing a risk management tool so that decision makers can evaluate the risks and benefits of various options in selected case sites. The tool will be based on well-tested methods, as well as novel biological and chemical methods and risk assessment procedures that will be developed within the project.
NATO’s Science and Technology Organisation (STO) has been examining the environmental impact of munitions on the environment through a series of studies, symposia and demonstrations. NATO held a workshop in Bulgaria on the Black Sea Coast at Varna to review the status and discuss approaches to UXO issues. NATO STO will be preparing a proposal for activities within the Alliance and involving NATO partners as appropriate to build links among the various groups and participants so that the strengths of all can be employed effectively for mutual benefit.
In November 2015, the European Joint Programming Initiative – Healthy and Productive Seas and Oceans (JPI Oceans), a high-level coordinating and integrating strategic platform open to all EU member states and associated countries, launched a joint action called “Munitions in the Sea” (www.jpi-oceans.eu/munitions-sea) that will provide knowledge-based support to operators and policy makers. The effort will be coordinated by Italy and currently involves Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Greenland, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Sweden and the U.K., with the collective goal of assessing risks and describing case studies, defining priorities and suggesting common intervention options. This effort will increase the efficiency and effectiveness of interventions for emergencies at national and local levels by sharing experience and skills across Europe. Several navies are involved in Munitions in the Sea, and contacts are being established with U.S. experts in the field (e.g., the University of Hawaii Manoa).
Munitions in the Sea comprises three lines of activity: science support, to increase safety and efficiency of interventions; technology transfer, analysis and update of technologies and procedures for detection, monitoring, removal and remediation; and exchange of practices and knowledge through panels of experts and updated support to authorities. Outcomes will be used to support decision makers in the identification, monitoring and elimination of threats through more systematic and shared approaches across Europe.
The first phase of Munitions in the Sea has been mostly devoted to identifying the main research challenges. Relevant stakeholders have been asked to collaborate, while a collection of end-users’ priorities at a national level has now been obtained to outline the priorities that will guide the next steps of action toward the definition of an implementation plan.
Italy’s CNR-ISMAR is actively contributing to these efforts, with a specific focus on object identification techniques and the development of specific sea state forecasts for planning interventions and monitoring areas of interest. These activities will be part of joint sea trials, expected to take place late 2017 in the Baltic and Adriatic Seas.
In the U.S., the HUMMA project (Hawaii Underwater Military Munitions Assessment, www.hummaproject.com) recently yielded an extremely large integrated data set combining sonar, photographic, time-lapse acquisitions and environmental data with the results of chemical analyses of physical specimens to investigate basic questions regarding munitions casing integrity, distribution of CWA in sediments and level of toxic chemicals in animals in relation to a large dumping area south of the island of Oahu, Hawaii. Results confirm that UXO presence in the oceans represents a problem that is strongly case-specific and very often far beyond what a single country (or even a decently funded project) can attempt to solve.
The International View
A global approach is needed to address UXO in the oceans because: UXO are often distributed in marine areas intersecting several nations or threatening international infrastructures, such as oil and gas pipelines; multiyear monitoring programs allowing the collection of long time data series, necessary for thorough investigation and identification of temporal trends, can only result from large international projects; sampling strategies and instrument specifics (sonars, ROVs, AUVs, magnetometers, etc.) should be the result of joint actions; protocols to detect warfare agents and degradation products in the physical and biological environments should be agreed to at an international level; major shared efforts will advance the application of high-resolution ad hoc numerical modeling tools for intervention and risk assessment procedures, as well as produce models for the chemical speciation of conventional and chemical warfare agents at sea; and new findings and technology need to be tested and compared in international sea trials.
When dealing with UXO, it has always been very difficult to produce a series of effective shared protocols and recommendations. This is due to the scientific nature of the problem, which incorporates several disciplines (hydrodynamics, biology, chemistry, marine technology, etc.) and to the fact that the topic is often treated as a national problem.
Joint action between countries is well worth the effort because it can yield: scientific advances, technology innovation, valuable research infrastructure and data, and societal improvements. Joint collaborations would lead to safer planning and removal of munitions from the seafloor and more shared working scenarios and risk assessment estimates.
An international approach would establish acceptable, standardized procedures relevant to military and commercial end-users, and may also help marine spatial planning. Examples may include: agreed protocols for interventions for munitions at sea; shared protocols to determine toxicity (especially chronic) to marine organisms, e.g., the development of specific biomarkers and general methods; the definition of risk maps integrating in-situ information with numerical models; and knowledge-based support for interventions in terms of options, guidelines, scenarios and state-of-the-art methodology.
International action will enable the sharing of existing infrastructure (supercomputing centers, ships, AUVs, ROVs, etc.) and favor open access to existing data. It would also generate more interaction among different levels of government, governments around the world, and various sectors and disciplines, including the public, which must be made aware of the UXO problem.