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This World War II Shipwreck Is Leaking Toxins Into the Ocean




  • Near Belgium in the North Sea, the sinking of the John Mahn continues to pollute the seabed.
  • Originally a fishing boat, John Mahn later served as a German patrol vessel in World War II, leading to the British Royal Air Force attacking her in 1942.
  • A research team explores WWII wrecks to see the impact they have on marine life decades later.

The John Mahn served three key purposes during its lifetime. First of all, the ship served as a fishing trawler. Then, during World War II, Germany turned it into a patrol boat that British planes would eventually attack and sink. Since then the John Mahn has spent the past 80 years impacting the microbiology and geochemistry of the seafloor of the North Sea; Today, it gives scientists a rare opportunity to study how old shipwrecks could pollute the deep sea.

In a new study published earlier this month in the journal Marine Science Frontiers, a research team from the University of Ghent, the Museum of Natural Sciences of Belgium and the Marine Institute of Flanders examined samples of the ship’s hull and nearby sediments. They found that hazardous materials from by John Mahn the explosives on board, the coal bunker and the corroded steel frame were “[significantly steering] surrounding sediment chemistry and microbial ecology,” the authors write in the is abstract.

What’s more, these results raise questions about other wrecks rusting on the seabed – the United Nations estimates there are around three million wrecks in total – and what we should do about them. The North Sea alone is littered with countless other ship and aircraft wreckage, as well as warfare agents and “millions of tonnes of conventional munitions such as shells and bombs”, according to a statement from hurry.

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John Mahn on the seas

Before the John Mahn served as a patrol boat for the Germans, he was given the fishing identification number BX 221. This lasted from September 1932 until 1939, when he was part of the 13e Outpost Boat Flottille, known as Vorpostenflottille 1302.

During the 1942 Channel Dash, a German naval operation, the British Royal Air Force attacked the ship near the Belgian coast. Flotilla 1302 combined with Vp 1303 in Operation Cerberus, an attempt to aid three German battleships—Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, and Prinz Eugen—break through the English Channel into the North Sea for additional protection towards German-occupied Norway.

During the operation, 242 British aircraft, Bomber Command’s largest daylight operation of the war at the time, attacked Vp 1302. While the three German battleships were able to escape largely unscathed , two aerial bombs hit the John Mahn. It immediately sank and 12 crew members died in the attack.

The environmental impact of shipwrecks

“The general public is often very interested in wrecks because of their historical value,” said Josefien Van Landuyt, Ph.D. candidate at Ghent University in Belgium, and one of the study’s authors, states in the press release, “but the potential environmental impact of these wrecks is often overlooked.”

For example, estimates indicate that WWI and WWII wrecks collectively contain up to 20 million tonnes of petroleum products, the statement said. “While shipwrecks can function as artificial reefs and have enormous human storytelling value, we must not forget that they can be dangerous man-made objects that have been unintentionally introduced into a natural environment,” says Van Landuyt. “Today new wrecks are being removed for this exact reason.”

As part of the North Sea Wrecks project which examines the toxic legacies of war, Van Landuyt and his colleagues investigated specifically the John Mahn wreck in the Belgian part of the North Sea, see how it shapes local microbial communities and whether it still impacts surrounding sediments.

Scientists have found varying degrees and concentrations of toxic pollutants, including heavy metals such as nickel and copper; polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons; arsenic; and explosive compounds. In other words, the team found the ship did influence the surrounding microbiome.

“People often forget that below the surface of the sea, we humans have already had a huge impact on the local animals, microbes and plants that live there and are still having an impact, leaching chemicals , fossil fuels, heavy metals from – sometimes centuries old – shipwrecks that we don’t even remember are there,” says Van Landuyt. “We only investigated one ship, at one depth, in one location. “