Few people realize how close the war came to American shores

Over the past century, the occurrence of regional and global wars has left a legacy of thousands of sunken vessels across our oceans. World War II was the single largest loss of shipping in a relatively short period of time that our world has ever witnessed. Few people realize how close the war came to American shores – a relatively little-known chapter in American history. The exact spots of where most shipwrecks had landed were lost. But, sixty years on, the global risk of marine pollution from these sunken and scuttled WWII vessels is possibly the most significant risk to our global marine environment.

The Battle of the Atlantic began with the blockade of German ships in the Atlantic by Allied forces, and raged back and forth as the German and Italian navies sought to prevent the Allies from moving their own supply and troop ships. German submarines, known as U-boats, were serious threats to Allied ships in this conflict. Winston Churchill described The Battle of the Atlantic and the vital trade routes as, “the dominating factor all through the war," on which everything depended (Williams 2002).

Over 50 merchant ships were lost to U-boats patrolling off the North Carolina coast

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that in the first eight months of 1942 alone, more than 50 merchant ships were lost to U-boats patrolling off the North Carolina coast. Unlike the Americans, the international community is aware of the problem of sunken wrecks and the potential pollution threat, but not the magnitude of the global problem, or the scale of the threat.

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It was only in March 2004 that the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Cooperation (OPRC) technical groups acknowledged there was a problem, and encouraged “regional centers and secretariats to assess the situation regarding WWII wrecks that may cause oil pollution on their respective sea areas” (IMO 2004).

Heavy fuel oil is often seen as the most environmentally significant oil spill threat because of its persistence even after weathering at sea, and very slow biodegradation rates. The sea is a sacrificial and corrosive chemical environment for metal objects and wooden structures. The rates of shipwreck deterioration depend on the type of construction, the length of immersion, the extent of burial, chemical, physical, and biological factors. Salt-water corrosion along with shifting sea-bottom sediments, marine bacteria and organisms, destructive storms and currents will reduce a sunken shipwreck back to its original basic chemical elements.

Some protection of a vessels metal superstructure may occur due to burial in soft silts on the seabed, and reduced oxygen and temperature in deep water. But eventually, a shipwreck will deteriorate over time under the sea to the extent where it may release some or all of its oil cargo, fuels, lubricants or hazardous chemicals.

Liquid product tankers, during WWII, were carrying a variety of products including various crude oils, heavy fuel oil and/or refined fuel products, some were even carrying molasses. Submarines should also be included as they played a vital role in the Battle of the Atlantic and also contain significant quantities of hazardous chemicals such as lead, acids and mercury which also pose an environmental threat.

If you're worried about the effects of ocean pollution on marine life, you are not alone. The increase of pollutants in the world's oceans is affecting the creatures that live there. According to the WWF (World Wildlife Fund: Marine Pollution) -- "Evidence is mounting that a number of man-made chemicals (in our oceans) can cause serious health problems - including cancer, damage to the immune system, behavioural problems, and reduced fertility."