Too often, it seems that we know little about the underwater world until something goes terribly, terribly wrong. In 2010 BP oil platform Deepwater Horizon exploded while drilling an exploratory well, blowing out at the ocean floor and spilling an estimated 210 million gallons of crude hydrocarbons into the Gulf of Mexico.
While scientists are still working to understand the oil spill’s impact on oceanic and coastal flora and fauna, the fate of critical underwater shipwrecks and other archaeological resources has gone largely unnoticed—until now.
Since 2014, researchers with the American Geophysical Union have returned to several Gulf of Mexico shipwreck sites, including the World War 2-era German submarine U-166. They estimate that some 30% of the oil released from the Deepwater Horizon spill (alongside chemical dispersents and other debris) ended up deposited on shipwreck-rich regions of the ocean floor.
“We are filling a huge void in our scientific understanding of the impacts of the spill,” said marine archaeologist and project co-leader Melanie Damour in an AGU press release regarding the ongoing study.
In a post-expedition paper presented at the 2016 Ocean Sciences Meeting, George Mason University and Naval Research Laboratory scientists demonstrated that oil and dispersants have a significant effect on the degradation of shipwreck hulls, a worrying trend to sites already impacted by fishing activity and other factors.
“This is just one reason why I don’t agree that the best thing to do with shipwrecks is leave them untouched and forgotten on the seafloor, while they are slowly destroyed by natural and man-made causes,” said underwater archaeologist Dr. E. Lee Spence on a public internet post. “I am all for the commercial salvage of shipwrecks, as long as site-appropriate archaeological protocols are followed.”
The truth is, “in-situ” preservation of shipwrecks at depth remains an unproven theory. Indeed, much of the evidence collected to date shows that fishing activity and natural degradation over time has a profoundly adverse effect on these critical sites, a situation compounded by incidents such as the BP oil spill. As technology to find and recover historic shipwrecks continues to evolve by leaps and bounds, we must recognize our collective responsibility to find, document, monitor and excavate these underwater cultural resources. Given the confluence of factors working against us, now may be the only chance we have.