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  • Writer's pictureTravis Turgeon

A Sinister Role: Dark Ships and the Nord Stream Pipeline Disaster

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

"Satellite data, SAR imagery, and other open-source information confirmed that two vessels, both of which were operating as ‘dark vessels’ with their AIS transponders turned off, were near the explosion sites just days before the occurrences."

Deep sea industrialization. Efforts are expanding globally at a rapid rate, and it’s wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems as exploration and execution failures continue to occur. According to data from the National Library of Medicine, approximately 85% of contaminants released from pipeline disasters remain uncovered and unremedied. Of the incidents on record, just over half led to coastal soil contamination, and around 40% severely impacted vulnerable environmental areas.

What's more?

It’s estimated that more than 90% of accidents involving underwater pipelines are undocumented, making it all but impossible to know the actual consequences of these manmade disasters.

Off the coast of southern California last year, an underwater oil pipeline dumped around 120,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean, much of which washed into Talbert Marsh - a fragile coastal wetland ecosystem home to about 90 species of birds. Remediation officials estimated that they recovered approximately 5,000 gallons of the spilled oil. Still, officials reported finding dead fish and wildlife along the shore in the days following the accident.

From an environmental perspective, there is no excuse to let these types of incidents slide without consequence. From an economic standpoint, it costs governments and taxpayers about $140 million in damage and remediation costs annually.

A big part of the challenge in keeping these events from occurring is the uptick in dark shipping and maritime detection circumvention. Dark shipping is an increasingly common tactic used by governments, militaries, shipping and trade organizations, and fishing operations to operate under the radar - most often to conduct illicit activity at sea. Disaster events related to dark shipping are quickly becoming a cause for concern for maritime authorities. The most recent notable event…. The Nord Stream Pipeline explosions.

A Closer Look at the Nord Stream Pipeline Disaster

On September 26, an explosion was detected on the floor of the Baltic Sea just south of the island of Bornholm, Denmark. Several hours later, another series of underwater explosions were picked up by seismographs, this time on the northeastern coast of Bornholm. At each explosion site, methane gas could be seen bubbling rapidly at the surface.

The source?

Nord Stream pipelines 1 and 2 - the natural gas pipelines built to move Russian energy to Germany.

While Nord Stream Pipeline 1 has not been operational since August, Nord Stream Pipeline 2 has yet to deliver any natural gas and was awaiting clearance from Russia (although it was pressurized).

For the past couple of months, remediation crews have worked tirelessly to patch and fix the pipelines. Today, the damage has been mended, and the leakage has stopped. However, new information has come to light about the cause of the incident.

Satellite data, SAR imagery, and other open-source information confirmed that two vessels, both of which were operating as ‘dark vessels’ with their AIS transponders turned off, were near the explosion sites just days before the occurrences.

While 25 vessels were identified near the sites in the days leading up to the explosions, the investigation found only two operating without using their AIS tracking systems.

Anytime a vessel operates without tracking data, especially in open water or sites where mobility is frequent - red flags are raised.

The Vessels Involved

The two dark ships identified near the explosion site measured between 311 and 426 feet in length. Following International Maritime Organization mandates, any cargo ship with a tonnage of 330 or more must operate with its AIS tracking systems turned on when journeying internationally.

A lead director from the NGO Baltic Security Foundation publicly addressed the situation by saying that it is rare for ships to turn off their AIS transponders in the Baltic Sea. When they do, they are most often trying to avoid detection while carrying out illicit or nefarious objectives.

Sweden, Denmark, and Germany have all launched investigations into the incidents, as the pipelines were either near or in their Sweden and Denmarks EEZ. Germany, of course, has a direct stake in each pipeline’s operations and energy supply.

While little information has been released from any of the investigations, it is clear that several hundred kilograms of explosives were used to damage the pipes.

Unclear Motives

Russia, Ukraine, the United States, and the United Kingdom have all been accused of damaging the pipelines, although no entity has yet taken responsibility.

Still, it would seem unlikely that Russia is to blame, as the taps were geared and ready to deliver a substantial amount of natural gas to Germany - something that would serve them economically in light of the harsh trade sanctions following the invasion of Ukraine.

While there is a clear motive for Ukraine to damage the pipelines, more information is needed to determine that with certainty.

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