The environment is the silent victim of world wars. The struggle for peace and against war is the silent elephant in the room where there is much talk about environmental issues or a climate emergency. Unquestionably, World Wars have caused environmental damage, regardless of the human lives directly claimed due to such an event.

The environmental attack is used to affect the population’s livelihood directly, but the long-term collateral damage is problematic. Bombings, missiles thrown over territories at war, the intense movement of military vehicles, and the destruction of industrial structures cause the emission of substances that contaminate the soil, water, and air. 

Even today, areas of Europe are affected by heavy metal contamination caused by certain ammunition during the First World War. A professor at the University of Helsinki launched the first comprehensive international survey of the environmental history of World War II. According to the study, World War II was a significant factor in developing our current global ecological problems.

World War II left significant marks on the natural environment of war zones, home fronts, and areas occupied by war industries. The global war has left rubbish and ruins everywhere, consisting of abandoned front lines, half-sunken ships, empty bases, and bombed-out cities in Europe and Asia.

Significant Incidents during and after World War I and their Environmental consequence 

Two days before invasion of Sicily
Two days before invasion of Sicily | Image Credit – Picryl
  • The First World War was a milestone in the history of humanity. It was the first war of the 20th century and the first conflict in a state of total war – one in which a nation mobilizes all its resources to enable combat. 
  • World war 1 commenced in 1914 due to transformations in Europe, which made different nations come into conflict.
  • It commenced with the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by a young anarchist in 1914. 
  • German troops occupied Belgium and part of France. They hoped for a quick victory; however, the war dragged on and spread to other parts of the world.
  • During the war, tens of thousands of artillery fired over 1.45 billion shells of various calibers and kinds, spilling like a river in flood on all battlefields.
  • Only in Verdun in 1916, 32 million shells were fired by both sides, and during the whole war, over 22 million bullets were fired by the German imperial army alone. 
  • However, the tragedy of the war did not affect only man but, above all, what surrounded him.
  • The ecosystem was completely upset; the morphology of the land on the hottest fronts was changed and made deformed.
  • For square kilometers, the fire and gas destroyed forests and the fauna that lived there. The damage was no less on the sea, with ships damaged or sunk with thousands of men, which poured tons of fuel into the sea.
  • The industry itself, which initially found itself in decline during the war, accelerated its production more and more, also creating, in this case, a significant impact on the environment. 
  • These and other less critical factors created a tangible legacy whose effects were accentuated two decades later by the Second World War. It subsequently led to the more than 2000 nuclear tests from 1945 to today, which have come to cause the meteorological anomalies that affect us and affect our well-being and our lives.
  • In addition to the plague caused by the bullets, the man had to destroy his land by necessity.
  • European soils were hit hard by World War I, especially from heavy metal contamination, which in some cases were dangerous poisons such as mustard gas. 
  • However, the level of contamination was based on the number of artillery shells fired in the different war zones. 
  • In a study of the area surrounding Ypres (site of the 1st Battle of Ypres in 1914, the 2nd Battle of Ypres in 1915, and the 3rd Battle of Ypres in 1917), large concentrations of copper and lead were found in the soil. 
  • For example, copper with a concentration on Earth of 17 mg per kg in Ypres reached 60 to 200 mg per kg. Dangerous values, which, despite a century, remain.
  • On the Slovenian front (part of the Balkan front), about 1100 sq km of agricultural and forest land were physically damaged and chemically contaminated by artillery shells.
  • High concentrations of copper, lead, and high levels of mercury, antimony, and zinc are also present in the land surrounding these areas.

Verdun The longest Battle

During World War I in Verdun (northern France), in the middle of winter (December 1916), the French and Germans fought each other in a military operation that resulted from catastrophic industrial warfare.

The war destroyed the mantle of the territorial surface. The lands were deformed – the Mort-Homme hill lost 8 meters in height -the forests were razed, to the point that today the development of crops is impossible. Nature could not defend itself from the machinery of war.

It is estimated that more than 300,000 people lost their lives, another 500,000 were injured, and the destruction of 9 towns located in the theater of war. It is estimated that in a single day of the war, 300 thousand projectiles were used, with a surplus of weapons of millions of projectiles, which today are unexploded and put the life and health of humanity at risk.

Chemical Weapons

Soldiers with the British Machine Gun Corps wear gas masks in 1916 during World War I's first Battle of the Somme
Soldiers with the British Machine Gun Corps wear gas masks in 1916 during World War I’s first Battle of the Somme | Image Credit – Picryl

The first international agreement to condemn the use of deadly weapons was the agreement between France and Germany of 1675 that prohibited “poison-laden bombs.”

Later, in 1899, within the First International Peace Conference framework, held in The Hague, the European nations signed the Hague Convention. They renounced “using projectiles that aim to disperse toxic and asphyxiating gases.” 

This Convention also contained a clause that prohibited the use of means of war that could cause unnecessary suffering. However, the Hague Convention failed to prevent signatory states from using chemical weapons during the First World War. 

Indeed, during this war, they used chemical weapons for the first time on a large scale; by the end of the war, approximately 124 tons of chemical agents had been used, causing more than one million victims, 100 thousand of which were fatal.

Throwing ammunition into the sea After the War

In Bedford Bay, in Nova Scotia, on the border between the United States and Canada, the Americans decided to dispose of their surplus weapons in the framework of the Second World War. For thousands of tons, they threw into the sea.

The Americans did not realize that the ammunition would soon lose its protective coating, which exposed substances. One of them is trinitrotoluene -an explosive chemical compound that endangers marine life and humans due to the consumption of food altered in its food chain.

This situation caused pollution to marine resources, to the point that today there are areas where bacteria are not even produced. The tragedy destroys life due to the effects of chemical agents released by the decomposition of the protective covers of containers.

Effects of world war I today

The First World War leaves deep traces in the landscape to this day. One hundred years later, the ammunition in the soil is a security risk and a latent source of environmental pollution. About a third of the ammunition fired during the Great War failed to explode. Pieces of ammunition and shrapnel that have exploded also entail health risks. 

In 2012, residents of 544 French municipalities were warned to be careful with drinking water for the first time. The high amounts of perchlorate posed a danger to pregnant women and people with health problems.

Revolutionary inventions left by World War 1 that has long term Ecological Impact

The First World War left desolation and destruction. Still, during the conflict that ravaged Europe between 1914 and 1918, some innovations were introduced, which had a long-term impact on our environment and have been the primary cause of today’s environmental pollution and problem.

1. Sanitary Napkin

Sanitary Napkins
Sanitary napkins | Image Credit – Flickr

A material called ‘cellucotton’ had already been invented by the small American company Kimberly-Clark (C-K) before the war broke out. That firm’s head of research, Ernst Mahler, and his vice president, James C. Kimberly, had toured pulp mills in Germany, Austria, and Scandinavia in 1914.

There they discovered a material five times more absorbent than cotton and that, produced in large quantities, could be manufactured for half the price. They took it back to the United States to commercialize it. When in 1917, the United States entered the war, they began to produce cotton lining for the clothing of health professionals at a rate of about 150 meters per minute.

But the Red Cross nurses on the battlefield realized that the material had another possible use during her menstruation. It was this unofficial use that ultimately made the company’s fortune.

The end of the war in 1918 caused a temporary suspension of K-C’s cotton business because its primary customers – the army and the Red Cross – no longer needed its products. After two years of intensive study, experiments, and market trials, the K-C team created a sanitary napkin with ‘celucotton’ and thin gauze.

2. Tissue Paper

Tissue papers
Tissue papers | Image Credit – Flickr

Putting sanitary pads on the market was difficult because women were reluctant to buy the product from the men who served in the shops. The company proposed to those businesses to allow them to buy them simply by putting the money in a box. 

Kotex sales rose after this initiative, but not as much as Kimberly-Clark intended. So the company looked for a new use for the same material. “Bert” Fourness, in the early 1920s, had the idea of ironing the cellulose material to make a soft, fine handkerchief. After much experimentation, the famous “Kleenex” was born in 1924.

3. Solar Lamps

Solar powered street lamps
Solar powered street lamps | Image Credit – Flickr

In the 1918 winter, doctors estimated that half of the children in Berlin suffered from rickets, an illness in which the bones become soft and deformed. At that time, the precise cause was unknown, although it was associated with poverty. A city doctor, Kurt Huldschinsky, noticed that his patients were very pale. 

He decided to experiment on four of them. He applied them with quartz and mercury lamps that emitted ultraviolet light. As time passed, Hudschinsky noticed that the bones of his young patients grew stronger. In May 1919, when the summer sun came, he also put them to sunbathe on the terrace. 

When they were published, the results of his experiment were greeted with great enthusiasm. Many children from all over Germany were treated with light. In Dresden, children’s health services even dismantled street lights to recycle them into lamps for treating children. Later science learned that vitamin D is necessary for creating bone with calcium, and this process is stimulated with ultraviolet light.

4. Tea Bags

Tea bags
Tea bags | Image Credit – Flickr

Teabags were not invented to solve any problems stemming from war. It was an American tea merchant who, in 1908, began shipping tea in small bags to his customers. Either by accident or by design, they decided to put the bags in the water, and the rest is history. 

A German company, Teekanne, copied that idea in wartime. It was developed to provide troops with tea in small cotton bags. They called them “tea bombs.”

Incidents during and after World War II that destroyed the environment

  • World War II assisted in developing our current global environmental problems, which include the chemistry of industrial production, the adoption of environmental toxins, and nuclear fallout. Of course, the most severe environmental threat with the most significant impact was the development of nuclear weapons.
  • Before World War II, for example, pest control was mainly based on natural methods. 
  • During the war, the countries gradually abandoned these methods. DDT and other toxins were adopted first to fight fleas that spread Rocky Mountain spotted fever and mosquitoes that spread malaria and then fight agricultural pests such as beetles.

1. Bombings destroyed the atmosphere

Bombing run in the atmosphere
Bombing run in the atmosphere | Image Credit – Flickr

During World War II, the Allies’ bombs detonated were so strong that they temporarily weakened the ionosphere. New research shows that airstrikes not only turned entire cities to rubble and ash, but people felt their shock waves were up to 1,000 km above the UK.

They observed that the concentration of electrons in the ionosphere had changed during the exact dates that 152 Allied air raids took place in Europe, including operations in Berlin and support of the Normandy landings. The data showed that the concentration of electrons dropped when they detonated a bomb, which heated the ionosphere.

2. Hiroshima and Nagasaki Nuclear Bombing

Hiroshima after the bomb
Hiroshima after the bomb | Image Credit – Flickr

At 8:15 am in 1945, the city of Hiroshima was hit by something unimaginable, an Atomic Bomb launched by the United States, which shortly afterward contributed to the end of World War II.

The result was a disaster of no proportions with consequences that lasted long. It permanently impacts both the population and the environment, above all, due to the incidence of radiation.

The Hiroshima bomb called Little Boy was the first atomic bomb in history dropped against civilians. At the time, the coastal city had about 420,000 inhabitants and was an important political and military center.

Just three days after the Hiroshima explosion, on August 9, the United States of America detonated an even more powerful bomb, Fat Man. The central target was the city of Kokura, but the smoke created by previous bombings caused the plane to fly towards Nagasaki. 

The second bomb, based on plutonium, exploded at an altitude of 500 meters with a power equivalent to that of 21,000 tons of TNT. In that explosion, the numbers of victims were similar. About 100,000 at the time and another 10,000 in later years.

From an environmental point of view, it is considered that the attack was highly devastating, causing impacts to a large extent. The entire Ecological balance of the region was affected, and, in the epicenter, the existing environmental resources were disintegrated. The systemic environment, balanced and consolidated there, developed over hundreds of years, in fractions of seconds, is devastated as never before, and the place never fully recovered. 

Radiation conditions made the soils temporarily unproductive, making it challenging to restore green areas, and consequently, with compromised vegetation, weakened fauna, and water resources. Against the radioactive conditions after the nuclear impact, the first flower was born about a year after the attack.

It was called “Oleander,” the flower became a symbol of peace and hope called the “Flower of Hiroshima,” demonstrating the strength of the environment reborn there from the ashes.

3. The Emergence of Mafias After World War 2

The value of natural resources and their associated income has encouraged the proliferation of mafias and terrorist organizations that use violence to control their access and use. An example of this is what happens in the Niger River Delta, one of the places most affected by massive oil extraction since the 1950s.

This massive oil exploitation has caused severe environmental and social impacts that are now irreparable. In addition, locals in the area have denounced illegal practices, such as burning residual gas, which causes severe damage to the environment and the health of the area’s citizens. Vegetation and crops are affected by acid rain, but the risk of diseases such as cancer or malformations has increased considerably.

4. Dumped bullets, bombs of World War 2 into the sea

German researchers have reviewed dozens of investigations, in some of which the details are still kept secret, on the presence and evolution of countless arsenals dumped into the sea. 

Most of the munitions have their origin in World War II. There are, for example, tons of Nazi German weapons thrown into the sea by the Allies at the end of the war. In other cases, such as in the waters of Hawaii, these are American weapons that just got old.

In the German portion of the North and Baltic Seas alone, one of the best-studied and most polluted, there are just over 1.6 million tons of munitions. The risks of so much gunpowder are many. The explosion danger is still maintained due to the deterioration of the stabilizers and the chemical reactions of the nitrogenous compounds that make up the explosive. On the other hand, its ecological impact is still under study.

5. Beginning of Environmental Policy

The war made people think about an artificial end of the world, which led to an intensification of environmental policies worldwide. The world war has had a severe impact on culture. It created an entirely new concept of an ecological disaster, anxiety about the possibility of the world’s end, which could happen through human fault. Then it turned into a comprehensive discussion about the environmental issue.

According to the researchers, the world war has seriously influenced the study of modern environmental problems and methods to solve them in the conditions of the Cold War and after its end.

6. Formation of the United Nations after World War 2

Formation of United Nations
Formation of United Nations | Image Credit – Flickr

With the end of World War II, the need to create mechanisms to avoid new international conflicts and all the devastation they caused became evident to the world’s leading countries. The creation of the United Nations (UN) took place on October 24, 1945, in San Francisco, USA, due to the peace conferences held at the end of World War II. 

Initially, 50 countries signed the United Nations Charter, excluding those parts of the Axis. The UN currently has 193 member countries, 51 of which are founders. To achieve its primary objective of maintaining peace, the Organization addresses – or must address – not only issues directly related to security but also issues related to human rights, economic development, and the environment, among others.

7. United Nations Environmental Conferences after World War 2

UN meeting on environment at General Assembly
UN meeting on environment at General Assembly | Image Credit – Wikimedia Commons

After World War II, the nuclear age raised fears of a new kind of radiation pollution. The ecological movement gained new momentum in 1962 with Silent Spring, written by Rachel Carson. It captured the public’s attention and created a scientific moment. Carson discusses the devastating effects of pesticides and other chemicals on humans and the environment. 

Scientists began to study the adverse effects of the industrialized world on the environment and society. In 1969, the first photo of the Earth from space touched the heart of humanity with its beauty and simplicity. Seeing for the first time this “great blue sea” in an immense galaxy has drawn the attention of many to the fact that we live on a single Earth – a fragile and interdependent ecosystem. 

The responsibility of protecting and conserving the health and well-being of this ecosystem began to emerge in the world’s collective consciousness. While universal concern about the healthy and sustainable use of the planet and its resources continued to grow, in 1972, the UN convened the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm (Sweden).

Key ideas such as sustainable development and institutions such as the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) exist today, thanks to the discussions generated by this conference. 

Conclusion

It is possible to relate the evolution of war to the evolution of the modern world. Since armed conflicts have undergone several changes over time, the development of new technologies could influence the course of future wars. Soldiers rode on horseback on the battlefields in the past. Now their travel means have been replaced by war tanks as society changes.

Today, many remain unrecognized in an era where environmental issues are increasingly important. It is all the more accurate about the effects of war, especially in a global context where the production, experiment, and use of nuclear weapons are increasing. 

(Last Updated on June 17, 2022 by Sadrish Dabadi)

Ankur Pradhan holds a bachelor’s degree in education and health and three years of content writing experience. Addicted to online creative writing, she puts some of what she feels inside her stormy heart on paper. She loves nature, so she is trying to motivate people to switch to alternative energy sources through her articles.