Wednesday, May 30, 2012

GIS in Warfare Agent Detection (Part I)

True story: I was running my first project site as a young site manager for my family-owned business ( in Warsaw, Poland, when a strange sight caught my attention. A corpulent Polish machine operator (120kg+) had just decided to abandon his 45-ton excavator and was hastening  toward his supervisor's site office. Puzzled but amused by the extraordinary athletic effort by a man otherwise known for his "efficiency" at work, the reason for his sudden change in temperament was relayed to me by our Polish client: a 250 lbs relict from WWII had just surfaced. Even more disturbing to me was the resolution that was taken by our Polish colleagues: a different machine operator appeared in a matter of ca. 45 min, elegantly hoisting the explosive with his machine and dumping it onto the next sand pile, from where it was trucked off along with the other excess ground material.

On German territory, such matters are taken quite seriously. In fact, the discovery of a 1.8 ton wartime bomb in the Rhine riverbed in November 2011 triggered the immediate evacuation of ca. 45,000 people of the city Koblenz. Still today, more than 65 years after WWII, an average of 15 wartime explosives, most of them dormant aerial bombs, are discovered in Germany per day! The danger is still imminent. Accidental discovery in the course of construction works killed a roadside worker near Frankfurt in 2006 (USA Today).

A 1.8 ton RAF bomb dropped by the Royal Air Force between 1943 and 1945 was successfully defused by specialists (Source: BBC)

Thanks to detailed aerial photo documentation of bomb dropping sites before and after air raids by the Allied Forces, a vast number of dormant warfare agents could be spotted and defused by German disposal teams. This is made possible by the use of modern GIS software that allows the overlay of different photographic images (see example). However, due to the density of bombings identifying unexploded bombs in the midst of explosion craters caused by successful hits in urban areas was not always feasible (see Spiegel Online article for more info). Moreover, with many of the main dropping sites (e.g. Hamburg, Dresden) being located along waterways, analysis of aerial photographs could not spot hidden explosives in riverbeds or harbour basins.

The German government uses these aerial maps of bomb dropping sites to classify potentially dangerous regions where inactive warfare agents are still likely to be hidden. Consequently, if a new building permit is issued for a property that lies in a suspected area, the building ground has to be screened and signed free by field experts. Once an area has been scanned the results are reported to the supervising government agency in order to update its GIS database, in essence turning 'red' or potentially dangerous sites into 'green' or 'safe to build' areas.

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1 comment:

  1. It's incredible that the war took place 70 years ago and we are still finding bombs!