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After 80 years, a Nazi shipwreck is causing environmental damage

Study of one wreck supports the idea that its 50,000 peers may leak pollutants.

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The V-1302 John Mahn has sat at the bottom of the North Sea off Belgium for decades. The ship began its life in Germany as a 48-meter-long fishing vessel. However, during the Second World War, the Nazi Kriegsmarine requisitioned it for use as a patrol boat. On February 12, 1942, a squadron of six British Royal Air Force planes struck it with two bombs. It sank.

It wasn’t just the boat that sank, however. Along with it went its stores of coal and its remaining ammunition, among other chemicals. While the boat’s no longer a Nazi threat, new research suggests that it has been leaking pollution—including various heavy metals—into the North Sea ever since. This, in turn, has changed the surrounding environment at a microbial level. The research is part of the North Sea Wrecks project, an effort to aid in the identification and mitigation of wrecks and their environmental impacts in the region.

“We wanted to see if old shipwrecks in our part of the sea … were still shaping the local microbial communities and if they were still affecting the surrounding sediment. This microbial analysis is unique within the project,” Josefien Van Landuyt, a Ph.D. candidate at Ghent University and one of the paper’s authors, said in a press release.

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