How Do Wrecks Impact the Marine Environment?

The Hawaiian Islands and surrounding waters make up part of the most historically, culturally, and ecologically rich areas in the world. These islands have played a significant role in recent history, due to its part in World War II, when planes and ships wrecked on its coasts. Using sonar and manned submarines, marine archaeologists and the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have been studying these wrecks to better understand Hawaii’s military history and the environmental impacts of these wrecks.

Wrecks, when properly decommissioned, can create artificial environments that benefit the ocean. However, when these sunken wrecks are not planned, they can have adverse effects on the local ecosystem. Studies show that most wrecks surrounding the Hawaiian Islands are naval aircrafts; and the total number of crashes of planes and ships drastically increased during World War II. These wrecks are mostly a result of military training exercises and testing new equipment, although the attack on Pearl Harbor led to a significant increase of wrecks in the area.

With many wrecks in the water, their positive impact on the environment has become noticeable. The wrecks off the Hawaiian coast have created opportunities for the islands to grow ecologically, financially, historically and culturally. These wrecks can help the environment because, over time, they can become a viable habitat for many marine plants and animals and improve water quality. They have also developed into popular recreation and eco-tourism destinations.

However, the wrecks do have adverse environmental impacts as well. The impact of vehicle crashes can physically hurt coral reefs and prevent further growth. Researchers believe that the deterioration of wrecks will release harmful metals and chemicals that could potentially hurt future marine communities. Marine archeologists are concerned by the environmental effects of the oil that resides in wrecks. There are an estimated 2.5-20 million tons of oil in wrecks worldwide, which can smother marine life, release harmful toxins, and is expensive and difficult to clean.

Researchers continue to monitor the positive and negative affects that wrecks have on the natural environment in Hawaii and beyond.

Information and photos provided by NOAA.

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