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Environmental Disasters of World War II

Updated on January 13, 2012

When humans fight, nature suffers too

Millions of people visit the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, every year, and one of the enduring images many of them take away is the oil still leaking from the wreck of the stricken battleship, 70 years after she was sunk during the Japanese attack that brought the United States into World War II.

The Arizona lies in shallow water in a secluded harbour well protected from storms, and so the leakage is likely to remain slow and manageable and have a minimal impact on the natural surroundings. But it is a reminder of an often forgotten yet vital consequence of war: that it causes destruction not only to humans and their works but also to the natural environment.

The terrible things done by both sides in World War II are often justified in terms of "the greater good". While this argument has merit, there is a growing awareness of the fallout from some of these actions. As we read and listen to the testimonies of those who survived the firebombing of Dresden, or the fall of Berlin, or the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we understand that there was much suffering even among those whose leaders were evil.

But little thought has yet been given to the impact of the war on the natural world, even though the scars of battle are still visible throughout the globe and had consequences which are still felt today.

In this article, we look at some of the places where the ecological implications were (and are) most profound: how these sites have responded to the passage of war, and their future prospects.

Wreck of the Unkai Maru, Chuuk, Micronesia. Credit: Matt Kieffer (Flickr/Creative Commons)
Wreck of the Unkai Maru, Chuuk, Micronesia. Credit: Matt Kieffer (Flickr/Creative Commons)

The Ghost Fleet of Chuuk

Beneath the waters of Chuuk Lagoon, in the remote Federated States of Micronesia, lies a fleet of more than 50 Japanese ships sunk in an Allied attack in February 1944. Like almost all shallow-water wrecks, they form an artificial reef and have been colonized by dozens of species of coral, fish and other marine life. But, like the Arizona, many of them still contain the oil, explosives and other chemicals that were stored aboard at the time of the battle.

Of particular concern is the Hoyo Maru, a tanker that may still hold millions of gallons of oil, and that has been observed leaking fuel into the water at an intermittent but significant rate.

Military sources claim that wrecks like these pose little ecological threat. But the iron hulls of the Ghost Fleet are steadily decaying, and conservationists worry that the deterioration may soon reach a point where their structural integrity fails. When that happens, vast quantities of toxic materials could be released into the local environment.

Japanese soldiers in Manchuria, circa 1933. Credit: born1945 (Flickr/Creative Commons)
Japanese soldiers in Manchuria, circa 1933. Credit: born1945 (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Chemical weapons in China

As the Imperial Japanese Army withdrew from Manchuria in northern China towards the end of the war, they left behind thousands of shells containing mustard gas, phosgene and other weaponised chemicals, which they buried in an effort to prevent them from falling into Allied hands.

Over time, the chemicals have begun leaching into the soil. Chinese public health experts estimate that the weapons have been directly responsible for at least 2000 deaths and an untold number of illnesses. The effects on crops, livestock and wildlife are likewise unquantifiable.

The Japanese government has now signed an agreement with China to find and dispose of the remaining warheads, at a cost of over a billion dollars. But this is an exception. It is rare that a nation makes the effort, however belatedly, to clean up after its military.

Total War!

A concept that refers to a country or region restructuring its entire economy in support of a military effort.

Everything else - including the environment - takes a back seat.

The two world wars of the 20th century are, fortunately, the only historical examples of total warfare.

World War II landmine near Bir Hakeim, Libya. Credit: Jerryscuba (Wikimedia Commons)
World War II landmine near Bir Hakeim, Libya. Credit: Jerryscuba (Wikimedia Commons)

The landmines of Libya

During the last years of her life, Princess Diana worked tirelessly to spread awareness of the thousands of people and animals who are killed and maimed by landmines every year. Millions of mines were laid across the globe during World War II: they continue to be laid and, because of the obvious risks of doing so, are seldom removed once hostilities are over.

Over time, interaction with environmental factors like salt water, rainwater and soil-borne minerals render the explosive components of most mines inert and harmless. In arid climates like that of North Africa, however, fuses stay dry and the weapons can remain active for many decades.

Millions of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines were laid in Libya during the war by the armed forces of Germany, Italy, France and the United Kingdom. A report published in 1995 by the Libyan police, who are responsible for clearing minefields, estimated that upwards of 6000 people had been killed by World War II mines in the country in the 50 years since the end of the conflict.

In a region where fertile land is scarce, hidden mines render large tracts of it uncultivable. They also destroy vegetation when they explode and interfere with the ranges and migration routes of wildlife: gazelles, for example, have disappeared from many areas of Libya that were heavily mined during the war.

World War II Dutch food ration coupons. Credit: Sander van der Molne (Wikimedia/Creative Commons)
World War II Dutch food ration coupons. Credit: Sander van der Molne (Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

The Hunger Winter

Following the Allied defeat at the Battle of Arnhem in September 1944, which brought the liberation of the Netherlands to a grinding halt, the Dutch government in exile called for a railway strike to assist the Allies. In retaliation, the occupying Germans placed an embargo on the shipment of all food and fuel to the agricultural areas in the west of the country. Stockpiles quickly ran out.

The blockade was lifted two months later but as bad luck would have it, one of the worst and earliest winters in living memory had already set in. Canals, the main distribution network now that the railways had shut down, froze over and became unnavigable by barges. To exacerbate an already desperate situation, the Germans were destroying bridges, dykes and locks, causing widespread floods in an effort to hinder the advancing Allies. Most of the fertile land, already ravaged by war, became useless.

Food rations rapidly dwindled to almost nothing. To fend off starvation, the Dutch began eating tulip bulbs and sugar beets: their nation's main agricultural and economic staples. Most of the country's trees disappeared almost overnight as people searched desperately in the bitter cold for anything that would burn.

By the time the Netherlands were finally liberated in the spring, 18,000 people had died.

Conservationism in World War II

Credit: Paulpod (Flickr/Creative Commons)
Credit: Paulpod (Flickr/Creative Commons)

At the outset of war the ecological movement was in its infancy, and awareness was low. Little or no thought was given to the consequences of intensive industrial production, infrastructure construction and weapons use on the natural world.

Conservation campaigns, such as this poster encouraging carpooling, were motivated by economic and military interest rather than concern about the environment.

Mushroom cloud from the Nagasaki atomic bomb, August 9, 1945. Credit: U.S. Army.
Mushroom cloud from the Nagasaki atomic bomb, August 9, 1945. Credit: U.S. Army.

The Manhattan Project, Trinity, and the atomic bombing of Japan

The development and use of atomic weapons in World War II is by far the best-documented instance of the environmental effects of military activity. Until the Chernobyl accident in 1986, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the only places where the effects of a large-scale uncontrolled release of nuclear materials on a dense human population could be studied and documented.

US research into atomic weapons had been conducted in deep secrecy, and so when the device known as 'The Gadget' was detonated in the New Mexico desert in July 1945 - the test codenamed 'Trinity' - the local inhabitants, some of whom lived only 15 miles from ground zero, were not informed. Measurements taken after the test showed that some residents had received radiation doses in excess of 10,000 times the normal background level. Even today, although the site is safe and open to tourists, they can still expect to receive, in the course of a one hour visit, ten times the normal daily amount of exposure from natural and medical sources.

The environmental effects of the bombs used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki the following month were severe in both the immediate and longer term. 140,000 humans and uncounted numbers of animals and plants perished in the explosions, which devastated wide areas, knocking out water supplies and communications and polluting tens of square miles with lethal radioactive fallout. In the ensuing years, as many as 350,000 more people died from conditions associated with radiation exposure and other effects of the blasts.

Today, radiation levels in the two cities are at normal background levels. This is because the bombs exploded at altitude, rather than close to ground level as with Trinity. Consequently, most of the radioactive materials produced by the blast were dissipated in the atmosphere.

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    • profile image

      Leafyishere 6 months ago

      didn't about this it should never happen.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      I must admit, before reading your lens I had never given any thought to war's impact on the environment. Nice job on this lens.

    • IanMayfield profile image
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      IanMayfield 5 years ago

      @norma-holt: Thank you Skiesgreen!

    • norma-holt profile image

      norma-holt 5 years ago

      Great lens and well researched. Blessed and featured on Blessed by Skiesgreen 2012 and also on Environmental Destruction and Mass Murder. Hugs

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 5 years ago

      Very eye opening.