2017, Vol. 24(4) 631 –638
© The Author(s) 2017
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Fathoming chemical weapons
in the Gotland Deep
The University of Sydney, Australia
National Veterinary Institute, Sweden
Linköping University, Sweden
At the end of World War II, tens of thousands of tons of chemical warfare agents – mostly
mustard gas – were dumped in the Gotland Deep – a deep basin in the middle of the otherwise
shallow Baltic Sea. Decades later, these weapons are being reactivated – both literally (perhaps
on the faces of dead seals, and in fishermen’s nets) and also in our imaginations. In this story that
recounts the beginning of our research into this situation, militarization meets with environmental
concern: the past floats into the present, where humans and non-humans are equally implicated,
where the sea itself conditions the kinds of questions we can ask, and answers we might get, and
where terms like ‘threat’ and ‘risk’ remain undecided. After spending time on Gotland Island – the
closest terrestrial site to these weapons dumps – we ask what kinds of research methods might
be adequate to these tangled, underwater tales that we find so difficult to fathom.
Baltic Sea, chemical weapons, environmental pollution, methodology, militarization, more-than-
human, mustard gas, water
Over 2 years have passed since we first heard about the seals. In late 2014, Aleksija had explained
to us that seals incidentally caught in fishing gear off the coast of Sweden had been found – now
dead – to have strange lesions around their eyes. As two scholars of gender, culture and science, with
a particular interest in the watery transits of toxic pollutants, we were intrigued. As bodies both
intimately attached to these Baltic waters, albeit in different ways, we were also deeply disturbed.
Astrida Neimanis, The University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia.
719069CGJ0010.1177/1474474017719069cultural geographiesNeimanis et al.
cultural geographies in practice
632 cultural geographies 24(4)
With the precision of her pathological and biological training, Aleksija referred to these anomalies
as mild abrasions or loss of pigment on the edges of eyelids: ‘Pink blinking through black’, she
explained. In a few cases, the disturbances that Aleksija’s colleagues in the labs of the Swedish
Museum of Natural History uncovered were less subtle: shallow craters where whiskers met skin,
ulcers striating the smooth lining of the mouth and the oesophagus. But the funny thing about these
signs of trouble in the water, she told us, was that they were overshadowed by non-signs: no trace of
inflammation, no indication of tissue repair. In other words, while some elements of damage to the
seals could be detected, evidence that might provide further clues to the causes or processes of this
damage was either gone or undetectable. Injury was indexed by an absence of tissue, now insulted,
eroded or simply washed away. There were no traces of chemicals in the tissues or organs, either.
Nothing was conclusive.
What environmental concerns are swimming in the Gotland Deep?
In other words, the microscopic examination performed by Aleksija (as a wildlife pathologist of
Sweden’s National Veterinary Institute) showed no definitive evidence that the lesions were caused
by mustard gas. Yet, this possibility was what prompted the National Defense Research Institute to
agree to analyse the tissues in the first place. Following World War II, Britain, the United States,
the Soviet Union and other Allied powers engaged in massive dumping of several hundreds of
thousands of tons of chemical warfare agents (CWA) such as mustard gas, tabun and Lewisite in
the planet’s oceans. Although the use of these weapons was largely restrained in World War II, the
victors were still left with the problem of what to do with the massive stockpiles. The solution was
the sea. After all, water has long been called upon to wash away our sins.
A large amount of European stocks thus now lie on the floor of the Baltic Sea. Most of the
dumping in the 1950s happened by loading up entire ships with the missiles and bombs and canis-
ters and scuttling them, Battleship-style. This is what they did outside Bornholm, in busy Kattegatt,
as well as further up the saltier Swedish coast in Skagerrak and off the coast of Norway. The
Gotland Deep was one of the most intense sites of dumping, off the south east coast of Sweden in
the middle of the Baltic Sea. Here, the relinquishing was more like Hansel and Gretel – dropping
the toxic crumbs, one after another, over the side of the boat, not only in but en route to the dump-
ing site. In this way, they made maps in a benthic Braille, no longer entirely legible. No precise
records exist of these operations, but a recent mapping (Figure 1) by CHEMSEA – an European
Union (EU)-funded multilateral applied research project in the Baltic Sea area – suggests that more
than 50,000 tons of munitions and chemical warfare leftovers were dumped near the island of
Gotland. The majority of these stocks, CHEMSEA experts convey, comprise sulphur mustard, also
known as mustard gas. At the time, this method of disposal was considered cheap and convenient,
as the large amounts of water were believed to neutralize the CWA. Almost half a century later,
however, CWA resurface in myriad ways – in fishermen’s nets, on beaches, in the news and, maybe
now, on the faces of these dead seals.
Now we’re here, the three of us – two humanities scholars and one scientist – in the middle of
the Baltic Sea, on the southeastern limestone outcrop of Gotland Island. We came here together to
try to make sense of the ways in which a tangled past of industrial chemistry, war and environmen-
tal short-sightedness still haunts these waters, with very material consequences for the lives still
eking out an existence in and around this highly trafficked and toxic sea. We are at the closest ter-
restrial point to where those canisters filled with mustard gas might lie, but any sense of terra firma
is belied by our tentative footing across the stony beach – those smooth rocks being picked up and
reclaimed by the persistent tide. The harsh bite of the icy November wind almost tricks us into
thinking that we are closing some distance between our fleshy bipedal selves and the hard chemical
Neimanis et al. 633
facts sunken in that inhospitable sea. Yet, our being here does not bring those toxic burial grounds
any closer, or necessarily make them any more alive than they would be to us, sitting at our desks
in Uppsala, Linköping or Sydney, Australia. Those drowned souvenirs of war are still many kilo-
metres out, and then several deep. Our chances of stumbling upon an amber-like nugget of blister-
ing poison are equally remote, which is both a relief (to a vulnerable body) and a kind of perverse
disappointment (to a curious researcher).
In other words, despite being as close as we can get to these weapons dumps without literally
accompanying the fishing vessels or the CHEMSEA submersibles, comprehending them is still a
fraught act of disciplined extrospection.1 This difficulty is punctuated by the waves’ repeated
refusal of our overtures of intimacy; the sea as watery archive indeed seems unfathomable. Yes,
CWA are becoming increasingly detectable across the shallow sea floor with the help of echo
sound and remote sensing, just as ocean sensing technologies are making marine spaces increas-
ingly measurable by and legible to landlubbing humans. Fathoming the sea, however, also demands
Figure 1. Map of the dumping sites.
Source: CHEMSEA findings with highlights, p. 17.
634 cultural geographies 24(4)
a concomitant imaginary – and the idea of CWA lying in wait beneath these waves requires more
than the representations from prosthetic data machines can muster. We hold out hope for knowl-
edge of what lies beneath but we humans can only ever go there partially, temporarily and by
proxy. This may indeed be true of all knowledge pursuits (what object, after all, gives itself over to
exhaustive conquest?) but here, at the edge of the Gotland Deep, these epistemological challenges
literally lap our boots with their cold fingers (Figure 2). Even for the heartiest of cold water bathers,
a swim seems out of the question.
The chemical life of waterlogged mustard gas, and the threat it poses, is similarly uncertain.
When used in terrestrial warfare, mustard gas is noted most for its insidiousness. While chemical
damage begins several minutes after exposure, symptoms only manifest at the sensory level
2–24 hours later. Recuperation can take months, and after-effects linger for decades. But we know
much less about what happens to mustard gas in the sea. Its dissolution is certainly slower, but the
water also contains its toxic dispersal. Even as the metal canisters are slowly broken down by the
sea, their contents develop an outer crust, and the chemicals become enveloped in a shell of their
own making. Temperature, salinity, microbial properties in the sediment and disturbance are all
factors that make the dangers of these sunken weapons almost impossible to accurately predict.
Research might be an exercise in cultural inductions, testing out hypotheses, indexical sleuthing
– looking for clues, crumbs, a path into the deep
When we spoke to the researchers at the Swedish National Defense Institute, they confirmed
what we had learned about the mustard gas, dumped en masse. Yes, these canisters are probably
leaking. There is a chance that the lesions on the seals can be attributed to these forgotten military
relics. It may be that the seals, as well as cod, sea birds, mussels and other marine life, have been
most heavily burdened with the task of embodying the memory as these toxic pasts. As potential
sentinel species, they convey any changes in the deep to ecologists trying to piece together what’s
going on down there. But the curator from the Museum of Natural History who took the possibility
Figure 2. The Baltic Sea, looking out from Gotland Island.
Neimanis et al. 635
of mustard gas burns most seriously also admits that CWA are probably the least of our environ-
mental worries, when it comes to the Baltic Sea. This generally shallow body of water, embraced
by nine northern countries and around 16 million human coastal dwellers, has been slowly suffo-
cating from pollution such as fertilizer-driven eutrophication and overfishing for decades. Indeed,
when CHEMSEA tried to test the contamination at the weapons dump sites, efforts were compli-
cated by the fact that unaffected species to be used for comparison were hard to identify. Nothing
much lives at the bottom of a choked sea, anyways.
Environmental toxicity in the Baltic cannot be traced to a single event, nor can its sources be
easily compartmentalized. Mustard gas is leeching into the waters, but the nitrate run-off of large-
scale agriculture with which the CWA mingle can be traced back to the same origin story of the rise
of industrial chemistry.
What research methods would be able to isolate the right narrative, find the right cause, point the
finger in the right direction? We realize this may hardly be the point
Back on Gotland, we cannot come to know the weapons, so we instead seek to understand the
cultural, historical, affective and environmental infrastructures that condition them, preserve
them and buoy them into an uncertain future. These weapons are concentrated nodes of pasts and
futures that call for nothing less than a material-semiotic analytics, where humans and environ-
ments cannot be disentangled. As such, they resonate as methodological touchstones for the
environmental humanities. On the beach, we encounter fossils of heliolite corals, crinoids, bra-
chiopods and trilobites in a reminder of the way the past always leaks into the present; we turn a
corner and find Viking runes (Figure 3) – other kinds of lives etched into stone – and realize that
the lithic layers that archive this island’s past are always a natural-cultural entanglement. In our
Figure 3. Image of fossils/image of runes, side by side.
636 cultural geographies 24(4)
drive towards the eastern shore to try to imagine the legacy of the chemical weapons dumped in
those waters, we stumble across a make-shift outdoor art gallery, where whimsical contemporary
sculptures (Figure 4) are built from old bomb casings and other military relics, likely washed up
on those shores.
We (who live comfortably in Sweden and Australia) assumed that the war was half a century ago,
but realize it is still here, just rewritten, recomposed. The history museum, like those runes that are
scattered along the back roads, reminds us that Gotland has been a dense transfer point of militariza-
tion for centuries. We become attuned to the fact that the anthropogenic afterlives of war are not
limited to these now corroding capsules. The pink-rimmed eyes of that seal remind us that the milita-
rization of ‘nature’ might sometimes lie dormant beneath the waves for decades. Here on Gotland, we
start to trace the palimpsest of military detritus that already stretches into the future to reconfigure
how we read the war archives we encounter here. On the day we leave, we learn that due to increased
geopolitical tensions between Russia and Western Europe, there are plans to remilitarize this island.
We are unable to find any evidence of the CWA we came to learn about – the local people we
talk to have some vague inklings but can tell us little. The library has no archival information that
we might access. We are told of a man who is apparently obsessed with the CWA dumping. We get
an address, but it turns into a dead end. Again, it seems we are coming up empty-handed. But we
realize the traces are actually all around us. We just have to know where to look and be willing to
keep our eyes open for things we might not otherwise notice.
This is an experiment in research by proxy: a way of ‘fathoming’ what we cannot know – that is,
diving down to where we can only dwell temporarily, to where we can only catch traces of stories
in stolen glimpses. This strange kind of ‘remote sensing’ may be all we can ever hope for. Rather
than a methodological failing, this may be a constraint we need to acknowledge and respect.
As with the seal lying in necropsy, we realize that all we can do is follow these strange leads.
The meaning of this story of chemical weapons in the Gotland Deep cannot, no matter which way
we approach it, offer itself as conclusive. And while we find little directly connected to the
dumped chemical weapons, we understand that these agents are nonetheless being reactivated in
other ways – in our imaginations, in this research.
Figure 4. Sculptures made from military relics at Wanges on Gotland Island.
Neimanis et al. 637
Back in the lab, perhaps another seal is brought in. Still inconclusive. But whether or not the
lesions are due to mustard gas leaking from corroded containers, we do know that the CWA are
somewhere down there. We do know that the seal is damaged. We do know that Gotland once again
hosts an active military presence. We do know that the past will continue to swim into the present
whether we are certain of its providence or not, and that questions of environmental toxicity will
also be questions of history, war, hydrogeology and economics, even if this entanglement proves
impossible to pick apart.
In the context of the Anthropocene, where old stories of nature and culture can no longer be held
apart, and where the past is already writing different kinds of futures, we also know we will need
to look for new ways to tell these stories. While we may have set out to explore the connection of
old mustard gas caches to unexplained injuries in dead seals, we realized that this story was more
tangled than this simple cause-and-effect. As both scientists and humanities scholars, we find reso-
nance across our different ways of grappling with the world that will not find comfort in certainty.
Instead, we experiment, and learn to story the world together. We gather the crumbs we find and
assemble them in the hope that they will help us engage better with the slow violences aswim in
this sea. We develop agility, and a capacity for inventive response. We know the tide will soon
come in again, sweeping the traces back out to sea, and reconfiguring them anew.
This paper is part of a larger research project, whose lead investigators are Astrida Neimanis (University of
Sydney) and Cecilia Åsberg (Linköping), and whose collaborators include Aleksija Neimanis (National
Veterinary Institute [SVA], Sweden/Sweden), as well as Lauren La Fauci (Linköping University) and
Christina Federengen (Stockholm U). While the research described in this paper was conducted by its three
co-authors, its questions and conclusions are inspired by and indebted to this broader collaborative work. This
story may have remained untold if it were not for the perceptive observations of the staff, particularly Britt-
Marie Bäcklin and Charlotta Moraeus, at the Environmental Research and Monitoring Department, Swedish
Museum of Natural History. Special thank you to Anders Östin (Swedish Defence Research Agency [FOI])
and Charlotta Moraeus, Ylva Lind and Anna Roos (Swedish Museum of Natural History) for their generous
time. Thank you to CHEMSEA for permission to reproduce the map of the dumping zone.
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publica-
tion of this article: Research for this project has been supported by The Seed Box: A MISTRA-FORMAS
Environmental Humanities Collaboratory; The Australian Academy of Humanities; The University of Sydney
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Research Grants; and The University of Sydney School of Historical and
Philosophical Inquiry Incubator Grants.
1. L.Buell, The Environmental Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996). This is a
term used by Buell to account for how humans might come to write ‘nature’ in a way that can affirm
‘environment over self’ (p. 104), and which might reinstate a ‘culture of reciprocity with the natural envi-
ronment’ (p. 110). We can think of it here as a research or writing practice of committed extension into
bodies or places that we may not precisely inhabit, in an (always inadequate) attempt to do them justice.
Astrida Neimanis is a Lecturer in Gender and Cultural Studies at Sydney University, Australia. Located at the
intersection of environmental humanities and feminist theory, her research interests focus on water, weather and
embodiment. Her latest book is Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology (Bloomsbury, 2017).
638 cultural geographies 24(4)
Aleksija Neimanis is a Wildlife Pathologist and Veterinary Officer at the National Veterinary Institute (SVA)
in Sweden. Her interests include the role of wildlife as sentinels for the health of our shared environment. She
is particularly interested in changing patterns of disease, including emergence of new pathogens, as they often
signal ecosystem change.
Cecilia Åsberg, Professor of Gender, Nature, Culture at Linköping University, Sweden, works in the intersec-
tions of feminist environmental humanities, medical humanities, technoscience studies, human animal rela-
tions, and cultural studies. She is the founding director of The Posthumanities Hub and The Seed Box: An
Environmental Humanities Collaboratory. Recent publications include Animal Places Lively Cartographies
of Human-Animal Relations (Multispecies encounters book series, Routledge) with Jacob Bull and Tora
Holmberg, and A Feminist Companion to the Posthumanities (Springer) with Rosi Braidotti.