The long shadow of historic shipwrecks

Since my dissertation is about shipwrecks and the development of the American coast, this recent Baltimore Sun headline caught my eye: “WWII Shipwrecks could threaten US coast.” Now in all my research I’ve never found shipwrecks to be particularly threatening to the coast. If anything, shipwrecks have been boons to coastal communities. Shipwrecked goods that washed ashore entered the local economy (through illegal plundering, legal salvage, or a mixture of both). Rescue and salvage efforts offered unexpected short-term employment opportunities, and the spectacle of coastal shipwrecks often lured people (and their cash) to to the shore–they still do too (see the video in this recent post).

The “threat”–corrosion of oil-laden shipwrecks–identified in The Sun‘s article is relatively new, but it is getting worse every day. When vessels founder (or were torpedoed) and sink to the bottom of the sea, their fuel goes down with them. Wrecked oil tankers go down with tens of thousands of crude oil safely ensconced in sealed steel holds. Over time, the structures holding these hydrocarbons corrode, creating the potential for a substantial release of oil or fuel. Given that more than 30,000 shipwrecks remain off the American coast, many decaying shipwrecks could very well threaten the environment and economy of contemporary coastal communities. Fortunately, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) is conducting an inventory and assessment of the wrecks that remain along the American coast. Scheduled to be completed by the end of the year, the first phase of the survey has already identified more than 200 wrecks that pose a serious environmental risk and warrant mitigation. Extraction of the oil, funded by the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, could begin in the near future. See here for full story.

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