Peace Time: Stirring Up Old Threats

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July 17, 2007: More World War II and World War I naval mines are showing up in the Black Sea, as post-Cold War economic growth puts shipping into areas that have not seen a lot of it for nearly 70 years. The northwest part of the Black Sea, and especially the Danube river delta, were heavily mined during both World Wars. The most dangerous mines are the ones held in place by a chain (attached by an anchor that lies on the ocean floor in shallow coastal waters). Over time, storms drag these into deeper water, where the mine is suspended beneath the surface. Time and storms also breaks the chains, and currents bring these mines into shipping channels. Even World War I versions of these mines can be dangerous, because if a ship hits one, the pressure breaks a capsule holding acid, which starts a chemical reaction that produces electricity for the detonator. The acid never gets old, although the explosives deteriorate over time. While a ship has not been sunk by a World War I mine since 1955, other mines of the same age have drifted into ports. In 1986, one of these drifting mines hit a portside crane, and destroyed it. Five years ago, a World War II floater drifted into a small port, and had to be carefully towed out. It could not be detonated in place, because it would have damaged port facilities and blown out the windows of nearby homes and businesses. It's estimated that there are still over a thousand old naval mines in the area. Thousands were cleared right after the World Wars, but the entire coast was not carefully examined. It was too expensive, and many of these areas were not used by large ships. Now local governments are demanding a complete sweep, so that the entire coast can be used for commercial and recreational shipping. Ukraine and Rumania don't have the money for such an effort, and are looking for some international help. Germany is interested, partly because some of the mines are German (most of the rest are Russian), and because Germany is a major player in East European economic development.

 


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