Undersea Arsenal, Poisoned Oceans is a 9-part series on the history and consequences of decommissioned unconventional munitions disposed at sea.
Undersea Arsenal, Poisoned Oceans Part 5: Beaufort Dyke and the Missing Munitions discusses one of the worst instances of oceanic dumping and the ongoing threat they pose.
Beaufort Dyke, a sea trench between Scotland and North Ireland represents everything that is dangerous and wrong with oceanic dumping. Since 1990, more than 5,000 incendiary munitions have washed up on shore, posing a danger to beach-goers and coastal residents. Some of these devices have ignited, others emitted toxic fumes. In 1995 alone, some 4,000 phosphorous bombs were discovered washed up on Scotland’s west coast. Their most recent victims included a four-year-old boy, who was burned on the arms and leg when a bomb ignited in his hands.
Modern-days surveys reveal a portion of the disposed-of munition were dumped less than three miles from shore, in waters less than 150 feet. Left to become increasingly unstable and reactive over time, suspicious underwater explosions have been continuously recorded since the fall of 1966. A 1995 investigation of Beaufort Dyke revealed at least eight unexplained craters in the area, likely just a glimpse into the true toll. A 40-year Explosives Ordnance Disposal veteran estimated the depths of Beaufort Dyke erupt upwards of 2-3 times per month, and have been doing so for decades. The British Geological Survey confirms this using equipment tuned for earthquakes and other large-scale geological events, finding at least 47 seismic “events” in the area during the period of 1992 to 2004 alone. These so-called “events” are almost unquestionably accidental deep-water detonations. Ships are advised to steer well clear of the dumpsite, as the kinetic shock bubble of just one of these explosions could potentially crush a ship’s hull.
Even if we knew where these munitions were originally dumped, we do not know where they are now. The natural motions of oceanic currents are capable of moving bioforms and man-made jettison alike. As cooling and warming areas of the ocean displace each other, vast oceanic rivers of moving seawater are formed, some of which move at upwards of three miles per hour.
Despite the power of this natural phenomena, manmade disturbances are far more significant. Beyond the usual suspects of fossil fuel exploration and cable dredging operations, deep sea commercial fishing is by far the most concerning.
Powerful fishing vessels, some measuring hundreds of feet long with massive, 2000 horsepower diesel engines, are capable of lowering their bottom nets up to 6,000 feet below the surface. Steel cables hold these nets in place as the bottom edge of the net, sunk by massive steel weights, bounce across the ocean floor destroying anything in the way. Conservationists liken the practice to using a helicopter with nets to catch cows—you’ll get the cows, but you might also catch trees, deer, fences, maybe even a barn or two. While munitions encased in shipwrecks are relatively immune, anything loose can be scooped up, even objects weighing thousands of pounds.
Heavily fished areas—such as the English Channel—now resemble the base of a construction site, practically scraped clean. Anything in the path of these giant nets is picked up, dragged along or moved aside, chemical munitions included. Dumped armaments are caught and caught again, sometimes brought to the surface, sometimes simply moved to a new site further away from the original dumping zone, making keeping tabs on these devices exponentially more difficult.