Sea Life Thriving in Chemical Weapons Dump

Undersea robots recently documented a site marked as a chemical weapons dump, and found life clinging to barrels filled with unknown substances. Continue reading →

The Pacific Ocean hides chemical weapons, such as mustard gas, dumped after World War II. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) recently documented one of these dumps using diving robots.

The MBARI mission found rusting 55-gallon drums filled with unknown substances, but no artillery shells. Instead of instruments of death, the chemical weapons dump sites harbored life, including sponges, crabs and anemones. The animals clung to the sides of the barrels filled with unknown substances.

PHOTOS: Life on the Ocean Floor Garbage Patch

The survey mission started in March of 2012 when a aquatic drone, known as an autonomous underwater vehicle, discovered 754 objects embedded in the muddy sea floor south of Santa Cruz Island and west of the Los Angeles coast. The deepsea drone used sonar to map the location of the objects, but couldn't provide detailed information about their identity. In May, a remote-operated vehicle, named Doc Ricketts, videotaped the seafloor, which allowed identification of the barrels and other items.

The MBARI exploration found sea shells, as opposed to artillery shells, but that doesn't mean marine chemical weapons dumps don't threaten humans and wildlife. Nautical charts identify 32 chemical weapons dumping grounds in U.S. waters. Some of these areas cover vast expanses of seafloor and provide few details about the nature or exact location of the munitions, according to MBARI researchers who presented their findings at this week's meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

In 1997, the Chemical Weapons Convention banned the production, storage and use of horrific chemical agents in 188 nations. Prior to 1997, many nations had already condemned and abandoned the use of chemicals such as blister-causing sulfur mustard or the nerve poison sarin. After World War I and II, large numbers of toxin-filled artillery shells and other weapons were dumped into the sea.

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Now however, the discarded weapons cause injuries when fishermen dredge up decades-old munitions. For example, the Centers for Disease Control noted three cases from the Atlantic Coast in the past decade:

For example, in 2010, commercial fishermen pulled munitions from the Atlantic while dredging for clams off Long Island, New York. Two crew members were hospitalized after a black tarry substance oozed from the weapons.

In 2012, workers found a 75 millimeter artillery shell at a clam processing plant in Delaware. A munitions disposal team identified mustard agent in the armament. No one received injuries in the incident.

When an artillery shell turned up in a Delaware driveway paved with crushed clamshells, two members of a U.S. Air Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal team received chemical burns. One serviceman was hospitalized with large, pus-filled blisters on his hands and arms. Analysis of the shells identified the chemical culprit as sulfur mustard.

IMAGE: Still image from video captured by MBARI's ROV Doc Ricketts shows one of many 55-gallon drums that were lying on the seafloor in the area marked as a chemical munitions dump. Credit: (c) 2013 MBARI

One Fish, Two fish, Red Fish, Shoe fish

Trash on the bottom of the ocean used to be out of sight and out of mind, but a project by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) brought images of deep sea dumps to the surface. The MBARI team observed more than 1,500 pieces of trash on the seafloor from Vancouver Island to the Gulf of California, and as far west as the Hawaiian Islands.

Oceanic life sometimes made the best of this bad situation by colonizing the garbage. For example, this young rockfish is a shoe-in for survival and adaptation at 472 meters (1,548 feet) deep in San Gabriel Canyon, off Southern California.

Seafloor Social Network

Other young rockfish swim around discarded fishing equipment on the floor of Monterey Canyon off the coast of California. Luckily for them, the net isn't working. While some marine life may be able to adapt to human garbage, oceanic trash can trap animals, release toxins, smother plants and have other negative effects.

Boxing Day for Crabs

An octopus coils and crabs crawl over a metal box 2,432 meters (7979 feet) deep in Monterey Canyon.

Container Overboard

This shipping container was discovered by MBARI four months after it fell off the merchant vessel Med Taipei during a storm in February of 2004. The container was just one of the estimated 10,000 shipping containers lost overboard every year.

Drums in the Deep

A wanna-be Sebastian the Crab, from Disney's the Little Mermaid, may be planning to turn this drum into a percussion instrument for a calypso band under the sea. The 55-gallon drum lies 2,892 meters (9,488 feet) deep in outer Monterey Canyon.

Cardboard Crabs

Even fragile garbage like this old cardboard can become part of the ocean floor ecosystem if it isn't handled with care. However, the crabs may be grouchy that cardboard covers their habitat 3,950 meters deep, offshore of Point Conception, Santa Barbara County, California.

Wheel Life

A sea anemone (top) and sea cucumber (right) gained traction on the surface of this tire submerged 868 meters (2,850 feet) beneath the waves in Monterey Canyon.

Always Coca-Cola

The ubiquitous Coca Cola logo can be found even 1,200 meters deep in Monterey Canyon.

Classic Fish Pun

This old shoe is in pretty bad shape, but it seems to still have its sole...or is that a flounder (upper left)?

It's in the Water

The slogan of Olympia beer, “It's the water,” can barely be read on this old can. In this case, lots and lots of water.

Lost Deposit

Someone didn't turn in this soda bottle for a deposit. Instead, deep in the sea, brittle stars creep around the bottle on Davidson Seamount, 60 miles offshore of California and 1,727 meters (5,666 feet) below the ocean surface. "The most frustrating thing for me is that most of the material we saw—glass, metal, paper, plastic—could be recycled," said Kyra Schlining, lead author of the MBARI study published in Deep-Sea Research, in a press release.

The Long Black Veil

A gorgonian coral wears a veil of black plastic 2,115 meters (almost 7,000 feet) deep in Astoria Canyon, off the coast of Oregon. The veil could become a death shroud if the plastic were to completely cover the coral and block coral polyps from feeding.

Dr. Pollution

Dr. Pepper's slogan could be modified to, “Would you like to be a polluter too?” for this can submerged 1,529 meters deep on Axial Seamount, off the Pacific Northwest's coast. The nearby brittle stars probably can't tell the difference between Dr. Pepper detritus and Mr. Pibb pollution.