Europe still needs to face the legacy of the wars of the 20th century. Coastal waters around Europe are scattered with unexploded weapons (such as bombs, grenades, naval mines, known as UXO (UneXploded Ordnance)), and their quantity is unbelievable. As an example, there are at least 1.6 million tonnes of munition from the World Wars in the North and Baltic Sea, 300,000 tonnes of which are in the Baltic Sea alone.
The presence of UXO poses a threat to human health, marine ecosystems, and biodiversity. Those munitions rarely explode, though some can detonate if hit, but chemical munitions slowly corrode and release hazardous substances, such as mustard gas and white phosphorous: a veritable ecological ticking time bomb. The presence of UXO can also deter marine economic activities. The more offshore resources are developed, the more munitions are encountered and need to be cleaned up: one of the biggest motives for munition removal in northern sea and Baltic, is wind farm installation, cable laying and so forth. Two ongoing EU-funded project BASTA and ExPloTect are developing new methods to better detect UXO under the ocean.
Any locations where UXO are found requires careful site investigation before it can be declared safe. Two ongoing EU-funded projects, BASTA and ExPloTect, both coordinated by the GEOMAR HELMHOLTZ ZENTRUM FUR OZEANFORSCHUNG KIEL in Germany, are testing new methods of finding unexploded munitions under the ocean. Their combined approach might be decisive in determining where underwater UXO fields are, understanding what type of threat they represent, and therefore facilitating their removal.
BASTA (Boost Applied munition detection through Smart data inTegration and Ai workflows) collects data on underwater UXO through ultra-high-resolution 3D sub-bottom profiling (SBP) and with an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) magnetically mapping the sea bottom. Autonomous underwater vehicles can explore the seafloor quickly and efficiently, and several of these devices can work simultaneously, which greatly reduces the costs. The data collected are combined into a multi-sensor database, which includes also wartime archived data, and are used for advanced Big Data processing using artificial intelligence. The sum of these processes gives a good identification of the UXO.
Chemical analysis of seawater provides even more clarity. This is what the ExPloTect (Ex-situ, near-real-time exPlosive compound deTection in seawater) project is developing: a simultaneous shipboard sampling system with special filters for catching dissolved particles of explosive materials or chemical warfare agents from the seawater. The samples are then further concentrated and analysed with a compact mass spectrometer that indicates the presence of various explosives. This method can drastically speed up detection of underwater munitions. According to Aaron Beck, a researcher in aquatic biogeochemistry for GEOMAR, with the new chemical analysis the process has gone 'from 2-3 months, from collecting a sample to getting the data, to the whole process potentially only taking 15 minutes'. The unequivocal identification of compounds in seawater will increase safety for underwater and surface operators, and facilitate environmental monitoring of chemical release and ecological exposure.
The EU funding supported the research and development’s efforts of BASTA and ExPloTect and contributed to increasing the safety for workers and the ocean environment by reducing the time and resources required to clear UXO from the seabed. The results of these two projects could be useful for commercial Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) operators, as well as for marine environmental entities, governments, NGOs, and the fishing industry.
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