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ARL at UH Director Margo Edwards presents on an international panel.

A University of Hawaiʻi project to use high-resolution photographic and acoustic data to detect and assess World War II munitions disposed in the ocean south of Oʻahu was featured at an international panel on maritime security. Applied Research Laboratory at UH (ARL at UH) Director Margo Edwards discussed ARL at UH’s research at the European Conservatives and Reformists in the European Parliament conference in Brussels, Belgium on November 17.

Edwards was invited to participate in the discussion, alongside experts from Poland, Belgium, Canada, Finland and Germany, because UH’s work is similar to the European Union’s task of investigating and remediating World War II munitions in the Baltic Sea.

“For 15 years, I’ve been proud to collaborate with researchers working in the Baltic Sea. That collaboration has enhanced what we’re doing in Hawaiʻi, and I hope we’ve been able to help the efforts in the Baltic in return,” Edwards said. “This international partnership is something that I consider to be particularly important.”

Visit the European Conservatives and Reformists Twitter page to view the panel session.

Research off Oʻahu

munitions loaded onto a boat
Photo of munitions being disposed of into the ocean after World War II.

Prior to the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack, munitions were stored at Schofield Barracks in Central Oʻahu. However, Hawaiʻi’s tropical climate corroded some munitions causing them to leak. Near the end of the war, decisions were made to dispose of damaged and obsolete bombs at sea.

With the help of a sophisticated seafloor mapping underwater vehicle, Edwards’ team began the project in 2007 to search for approximately 16,000 bombs filled with mustard agent. Sonar was used to find the metal objects based on their response to sound waves, which was expected to differ from the response of the silty seafloor. Edwards said the trails of dots discovered in the sonar data matched historical photographs of how the bombs were disposed of in the ocean.

marine life in a munition
Marine life have made munitions their habitat over the past several decades.

Researchers then used manned submersibles and remotely operated vehicles to visit the munitions on the seafloor and collect samples of sediment and marine life to search for evidence that toxins were affecting the surrounding environment. Analysis of sediments near munitions showed trace amounts of mustard agent or its degradation products, which came from the munitions. However, there was no evidence of mustard contamination on any of the marine life that were collected.

“What began as a global effort to share information regarding the impact of munitions disposed at sea is now fostering policy in the European Union that may lead to environmental action in the Baltic Sea. That’s an unexpected but important outcome of this UH-led research, and I look forward to continuing the collaboration,” Edwards said.

This work is an example of UH Mānoa’s goal of Excellence in Research: Advancing the Research and Creative Work Enterprise (PDF), one of four goals identified in the 2015–25 Strategic Plan (PDF), updated in December 2020.

—By Marc Arakaki

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