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Environment : Unlocking the Secrets of 1940 Nazi Shipwreck : Norway is using a new technique to map oil aboard the destroyer Bluecher and assess pollution risks.

June 22, 1993|TAMARA JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OSLO — In the shivering dawn of April 9, 1940, Adolf Hitler's newest, most formidable destroyer cut confidently through the frigid waters of the Oslo fiord, leading the Nazi invasion of Norway. The "unsinkable" Bluecher expected little resistance.

But at 5:19 that morning, as the Bluecher slowly maneuvered through the narrowest part of the fiord, a barrage of artillery fire thundered from a small hilltop fortress on a nearby island. Two ungodly explosions then pummeled the 680-foot warship, setting it ablaze and triggering its own stores of ammunition.

Barely two hours later, the pride of Hitler's fleet sank to the bottom of the fiord, taking hundreds of German servicemen to a cold, watery grave.

Now, 53 years later, from its muddy resting place, the Bluecher is posing a new threat to Oslo, and Norwegians are relying on a combination of luck and ingenuity to head off disaster.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 23, 1993 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 6 Metro Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
Sunken warship--An article in Tuesday's World Report section misclassified the German warship Bluecher, which was sunk in the Oslo fiord in 1940. The ship was a heavy cruiser.

Like thousands of World War II shipwrecks littering the waters of the world, the Bluecher has now corroded nearly to the point of breaking apart. And with an estimated 1,200 to 1,500 tons of fuel still on board the destroyer, an ecological disaster looms should the oil spill into the slender fiord.

"There's continuous leaking already," said Sverre Sivertsen of the State Pollution Control Authority in Oslo. Tiny holes in the Bluecher's hull routinely bleed fuel into the fiord.

The relatively minor leaks took an alarming turn for the worse around Christmas, when one of the Bluecher's 182 connecting fuel tanks rusted through, disgorging 60 tons of oil. A 1989 investigation concluded that it could take another 20 to 40 years for complete breakup of the Bluecher, but the Norwegians feel they have no time to waste now.

"It's a very fragile, very rich ecosystem around the fiord," Sivertsen said, "and it's also a major recreational area."

Visitors already complain about the acrid smell and filmy water around the spot where the Bluecher lies upside-down on the seabed 300 feet below, near the picturesque village of Drobak about 20 miles south of Oslo.

Given the fresh urgency since the December spill, Norway is pioneering new technology to pinpoint where the oil is on the Bluecher and to assess pollution risks.

Without such mapping, pumping out the oil would be next to impossible, since no one is sure how much oil is stored in each of the tanks, or precisely where the tanks lie in the corroded wreckage.

Because the Bluecher is a grave for an estimated 600 to 1,000 German servicemen, disturbance of the wreckage must be kept to a minimum, and trying to raise or blow up the shipwreck is out of the question.

So, over the summer, a mini-submarine is scheduled to probe the sunken ship's hull with a new sonar device for finding oil and evaluating the pollution potential.

"There's a danger that we could have a breakup," said Sivertsen. "We are working at the extremes of technology here."

The U.S. Coast Guard and North Atlantic Treaty Organization already have contacted Norwegian authorities to express interest in the new technology, which could be used on the U.S. ships sunk in Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack in 1941.

"The important thing is that all the warships went down between 1940 and 1945, and problems are just now starting to pop up because the steel is corroding," said Jostein Jacobsen, a marine surveyor overseeing the sonar project for the Norwegian ship classification firm, Norske Veritas.

"Just look at Norway alone," he continued. "There are something like 3,500 shipwrecks. There are lots of sunken warships around the world, so there's a high potential for this system."

The exact design is secret, but Jacobsen describes the robot sub as "box-shaped, with lots of propellers, a camera capable of taking 3-D pictures and robot arms." The sub can dive around 2,000 feet, which its designers say is the depth where 90% of the world's shipwrecks can be found.

Low-frequency sound waves from the 10-foot robot sub travel differently through oil and water--differences detected by a receiver on the robot when the signals bounce back.

Although sunken warships have lain on the ocean floors for decades, no technology to measure their pollution potential and locate oil has been developed before now, Jacobsen said, "because we have only focused on the environment in recent years."

Until now, such cleanup operations have focused on randomly drilling holes to find oil, a process that experts say can dangerously weaken an unstable shipwreck and even set off ammunition inside. (That's not considered a danger with the Bluecher, since the fire detonated much of its cache.)

Norwegian authorities estimate that examination and cleanup of the Bluecher could cost millions, but there are no plans to ask Germany to help defray the expense. "They invaded, but we sank it," explained Sivertsen.

As it was, the sinking of the Bluecher only delayed the inevitable by a matter of hours; that evening, Oslo was in Nazi hands.

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