The U.S. Navy has some explaining to do after disclosing that, last Tuesday, it had dropped four unarmed bombs into Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, one of the the world’s largest coral reef systems off the coast of Queensland.
“The Great Barrier Reef is already under huge pressure from mining, and now, it seems from US bombs. It beggars belief really, I thought at first that this was a joke,” said Greens senator Larissa Waters to Guardian Australia. Not only does dropping bombs pose unknown dangers to marine wildlife and ecosystems; the reefs are popular tourist destinations whose safety could be compromised.
U.S. military planes dropped the bombs after aborting a scheduled mission when they detected civilian boats in the training area. The planes had carried out “an emergency jettison” because their fuel supply was running “relatively low” according to U.S. 7th Fleet Commander William Marks.
The U.S. Navy says that it is working with Australian authorities to investigate the incident and undertake a “rapid recovery of the ordnances so they pose no risk to the marine park and stakeholders.” A spokesperson for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority claims that the dropping of the bombs “was deemed by the authority to be low risk to the marine environment.”
The Great Barrier Reef, a UNESCO Heritage Site, is hardly the only marine ecosystem that the U.S. has used as a testing ground. Here are four more:
1. Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay
The U.S. Navy has been developing “self-driven, undersea vehicles” — underwater drones — and testing them in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, New England’s largest estuary and home to waterfowl, sea turtles and harbor seals. Propelled by flippers, the drones are currently being used to detect mines and trace the ocean floor; the military also plans to use them for intelligence gathering and anti-submarine warfare.
2. The Marshall Islands
From 1946 to 1962, the Marshall Islands and other sites in the Pacific Ocean were used as sites for atmospheric and underwater nuclear testing. In 1954, a hydrogen bomb (the largest the U.S. had ever tested) was detonated off Bikini Atoll and Enewetak Atoll. The resulting explosion was twice as large as predicted and caused widespread nuclear fallout, leading to cancer and birth defects in residents and killing one person on a Japanese fishing boat.
The Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 forbade the U.S. from conducting any more testing in the Pacific. But the legacy of the tests remain: residents of Bikini Atoll sought to return to their home in the 1970s but had to be evacuated after medical testing showed that they still showed signs of contamination, from eating food grown on the atoll and drinking water from wells. The effects of nuclear testing on wildlife, coral reefs and marine ecosystem is “surprisingly absent from most literature.”
3. Vieques, Puerto Rico
Now a popular tourist destination known for its blue waters and beaches, Vieques housed a U.S. Navy base from the 1940s until 2003. After the U.S. closed the base, it was named an E.P.A. clean-up site that had been contaminated with, among other substances, pesticides, mercury and lead. Millions of pounds of munitions have been removed but much (some of which could still be live) remains on what is now a nature preserve.
4. The Coast of Southern California
The U.S. Navy recently announced that it will be conducting more training and testing in the waters off the coast of Southern California as well as on the East Coast, the Gulf Coast and Hawaii. California regulators have accused the Navy of “sloppy science” for its low estimates of the extent of harm that will be caused to wildlife, including dolphins and whales exposed to sonars. Recent research has found that such noise pollution has contributed to mass strandings of marine mammals (some of whom are scared from their feeding grounds by the sonars) and is also harmful to squids and other marine invertebrates.
Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is “simply not an appropriate place for war games,” Australian senator Waters said — and neither are the other marine ecosystems where the military is deploying its practice bombs and drones.
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