What the Ocean Remembers

The story of sea-dumped chemical weapons in Australia and their unknown afterlives

A 500 pound bomb in the Pacific Ocean Image via Shutterstock

After World War 2, Allied forces had to decide what to do with substantial amounts of unused chemical weapons. Guided by the scientific and military opinion of the day, they concluded that the ocean would be a good place to dump them. Not only was the sea literally “out of sight, out of mind,” but its powers of solubility were believed to be capable of absorbing any chemical threat. Over 20 000 tons of chemical weapons were dumped by the US army and the Australian Defense Forces in numerous locations in Australian seas, including off the coast of Sydney. While no substantial ecological monitoring at the Australian dumpsites has been undertaken, research on other dump zones around the world highlights two things: first, given the materiality of the weapons and the physics of the sea, risk of ongoing damage is difficult to calculate; and second, leaving the weapons in situ may be the most efficient and effective response.

The story of sea-dumped chemical weapons in Australia is both an exemplary and cautionary tale for the Anthropocene. These dumps pose a problem not easily solved, and one we will likely have to learn to live with. The unknown afterlives of these chemical warfare agents draw our attention to oceans as vital for planetary health but also remind us that the sea has long been steeped in symbolic, cultural, and social meaning. While these military archives may pose some ecological risks, they are also effective repositories that speak to our feelings about water and our relationship to war.

This research project draws on methods from the environmental humanities to ask: how can we live well in the wake of these chemical and military afterlives? How might reframing our relationship to the sea help us to do so?

This project is supported by a Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences MASSIF Fellowship (2018).