The USS Independence — a World War II-era aircraft carrier — has been found in 2,600 feet of water off the coast of California's Farallon Islands. Surprisingly intact after 64 years, it was exposed to atomic blasts during the Bikini Atoll tests until it was deliberately sunk in 1951.

The newly completed survey of the wreck was conducted by NOAA in collaboration with the U.S. Navy and private industry partners, including Boeing. NOAA is currently working to locate, map and study historic shipwrecks in the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and nearby waters. Estimates place the number of wrecks in the waters off San Francisco at about 300.

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By using an autonomous underwater vehicle (AMV), the NOAA was able to conduct a scan of the wreck. Its scientists say the carrier is "amazingly intact," with its hull and flight deck clearly visible — and what appears to be a plane in its hangar bay. The carrier is upright and listing only very slightly.

"After 64 years on the seafloor, Independence sits on the bottom as if ready to launch its planes," noted NOAA chief scientist James Delgado in a statement. "This ship fought a long, hard war in the Pacific and after the war was subjected to two atomic blasts that ripped through the ship. It is a reminder of the industrial might and skill of the "greatest generation' that sent not only this ship, but their loved ones to war."

The USS Independence in 1943 (US NAVY)

The USS Independence (CVL-22) was the lead ship of the class of light aircraft carriers used in the Pacific Theatre during the Second World War. It operated in the central and western Pacific from November 1943 to August 1945. After the war, the Independence, along with 90 other ships, were assembled as a target fleet for the Bikini Atoll atomic bomb tests of 1946. It survived the Operation Crossroads tests, but it was damaged by the shockwaves, heat, and radiation.

Operation Crossroads (US NAVY)

It was later relocated to San Francisco's Hunters Point Naval Shipyard where it was part of a decontamination study. The carrier, along with some radioactive waste, was finally scuttled and sunk in 1951. The Farallon Islands are about 30 miles (48 km) west of San Francisco.

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In the mid-20th century, the Farallon site was used extensively for the dumping of nuclear waste. When the Independence was sunk, it was considered "hot" and stuffed full of fresh fission products and other radiological waste. The sinking of the Independence, and with it an unknown number (possibly hundreds, says Delgado) of drums filled with radioactive waste, is suspected of contaminating the wildlife refuge in the area. As Lisa Davis of SF Weekly reported back in 2001:

Although official government statements continue to refer to the Farallon Islands Nuclear Waste Site as a "low-level" waste repository — that is, a place containing radioactive materials that have short "half-lives," and that would therefore decay quickly and be diluted by sea water — there is good reason to believe that something far more dangerous is parked at the bottom of the ocean near the Farallones.

Once-classified military documents and former government employees strongly suggest that the Navy's "low-level" designation is incorrect, and that significant amounts of high-level, extremely long-lived radioactive materials are sitting on the ocean bottom near the Farallones.

But as reported by the San Jose Mercury News, the NOAA sub that investigated the wreck used onboard instruments to test the water for radioactive isotopes, but only found normal background radiation levels (at least at a distance of 200 meters). The Mercury News quoted an expert as saying, "The risk here to have a public health impact is extremely small," adding that the ocean acts as a natural buffer against radiation, preventing it from working its way into the food chain.

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Interesting, if not a bit alarming. This might actually explain the sudden interest in locating and surveying the sunken objects in the region.

[ NOAA ]

Top image: NOAA


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