With WWII wrecks already dumping chemical pollutants into the ocean, a climate conference in Gdynia has described the Baltic Sea as ‘a ticking time bomb’ that threatens to cause ecological disaster if warnings continue to dwell. be ignored.
Held at the Gdynia City Museum, the meeting was attended by, among others, eminent scientists and government authorities, including Deputy Marshal of the Senate Gabriela Morawska-Stanecka, Marshal of the Pomeranian Voivodeship Mieczysław Struk and Vice President of Gdynia for innovation Michał Guć.
Addressing the attendees, Guć said, “We are sitting on a ticking time bomb – we have to deal with this issue, not just talk about it.”
Although the exact figure remains unknown, it is believed that between 40,000 and 100,000 tons of potential pollutants could lie at the bottom of the Baltic, including mines, barrels of chemical waste and bombs.
While this is not an issue exclusive to Poland, researchers have warned that the country now needs to turn its words into action. However, it is also essential that other countries share the burden.
Speaking at the conference, Mieczysław Struk said: “For many years, the Pomeranian community has been trying to draw attention to the problems faced by the Baltic Sea. These shipwrecks clearly threaten the beaches of Poland, but this is not only a serious problem for our country, but for all other Baltic countries.
“Steel ships rust and release chemical compounds, including petroleum derivatives, into the ocean, and that is why it is important that the EU’s Baltic Sea Strategy includes enough funds to clean up the Baltic of these wrecks.”
Dr Benedykt Hac, an independent expert, also warned against inertia with a speech that stressed that “out of sight should not mean out of mind”.
“Just because we can’t see these wrecks doesn’t mean they aren’t there,” he said.
As it stands, the ocean is in a race against time, with scientists predicting that Luftwaffe bombs will spill their payload into the sea this decade; made from high quality steel, it is believed that artillery shells will begin to release their toxins towards the end of the century.
However, degradation of chemical-filled oil drums is already in full swing with changes in cod meat detected, albeit at non-harmful levels so far.
Around 600 wrecks dot Polish maritime waters, of which around 20 are considered to pose an environmental risk.
These include the MV Wilhelm Gustloff; Originally a cruise ship built under the Nazi “Strength through Joy” program, the sinking of the ship in 1945 resulted in the deaths of 9,400 people.
Filled with desperate civilians and wounded soldiers fleeing the Red Army, it remains the greatest sea disaster on record.
Torpedoed by the S-13, the same Soviet submarine was responsible for another sinking that was highlighted by the committee, the SS General von Steuben, a ship that was sunk in similar circumstances with the loss of 4,000 people on board.
However, the biggest threats are the Franken and the Stuttgart. The latter was in use as a hospital ship when it was hit by the first Allied air raid on Gotenhafen (now Gdynia).
Struck in the city’s harbour, she was towed out to sea to prevent the fires from spreading further, then sunk by the Germans themselves two kilometers from the dock.
Serving as a supply ship, the Franken, meanwhile, stands out as the largest wreck identified in the Bay of Gdańsk. Providing oil to battleships, U-Boats and minesweepers operating in the area, she was sunk by the Russians on April 8, 1945.
Although estimates vary widely, there are claims that its storage areas could still hold up to 3,000 tons of fuel and up to 1,000 tons of other petroleum-related products. Due to rupture in the near future, environmentalists have cited the Franken as a priority.
Moreover, the problem of “military waste” was further aggravated by the Soviet Union’s use of the Baltic Sea as a dumping ground – resulting from agreements with the West, the Soviets are known to have dumped several tons of weapons in the sea in the 1950s, however, the exact locations of these sites remain largely a mystery.
What is known in fact is that taken as a whole, this abandoned detritus represents a tangible threat not only for the ecosystem, but also for humans. In 1955, for example, more than 100 children were seriously injured after playing with a barrel that ran aground on Darłówko beach. Containing mustard gas inside, four were permanently blinded. More recently, in 1997, fishermen in Władysławowo had to be hospitalized after coming into contact with a chemical believed to be mustard gas.
Summarizing the situation, Professor Jacek Beldowski from the Institute of Oceanology of the Polish Academy of Sciences told the conference: “Our lack of funding is a problem but the threat is real. We need a real action plan in the Polish area of the Baltic Sea.
He continued, “This problem is not going to go away on its own…And it’s a matter of scale. Will all of these dangerous compounds be released at once and create an ecological disaster, or will they be released gradually? Even if we assume the most optimistic scenario, spills and pollution will still have an impact on the marine ecosystem.
“There will be fewer fish, or more sick people, and the ecosystem will weaken. Biodiversity is about to decline.