That Sweet, Sweet Low Background Steel
May 6, 2017 6:19 AM   Subscribe

The Thieves Who Steal Sunken Warships, Right Down to the Bolts. How could someone (or many someones) steal a single multi-ton ship—let alone three or four—without leaving a trace?
posted by nevercalm (35 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
Cool article!! Im not sure the how is so hard to explain. We can go all of 5 miles off shore in a busy tourist area on a holiday and can go 8 hours without seeing anyone. If you're out in the wider ocean you be got nothing but time and space.


Also, the past tense of sink is sank.
posted by chasles at 6:43 AM on May 6, 2017 [1 favorite]


Also, the past tense of sink is sank.

Yes, and "sunken" is an adjective.
posted by chaostician at 7:02 AM on May 6, 2017 [8 favorites]


Are they going after it because it's low background steel? I thought there was less demand for low background steel for esoteric uses due to improvements in manufacturing processes. I just figured they were after WWII era stuff because there's a lot of it and it's heavy.

Humans have done plenty of rebuilding from their own salvage over the years, so I don't have a visceral reaction to them making off with the salvage, but I think desecrating war graves during living memory of the war is pretty fuckin crass. (I am blithely assuming they were not treating the site or any detectable remains as anything beyond worthless salvage detritus. I'd love to be wrong, but I assume I'm not.)
posted by rmd1023 at 7:11 AM on May 6, 2017 [1 favorite]




I think desecrating war graves during living memory of the war is pretty fuckin crass.

Then don't think about the oil economy and peak phosphorous. Or read this.
posted by rough ashlar at 7:26 AM on May 6, 2017 [5 favorites]


Those are bitcoins that were his eyes
posted by thelonius at 7:34 AM on May 6, 2017 [7 favorites]


Are they going after it because it's low background steel? I thought there was less demand for low background steel for esoteric uses due to improvements in manufacturing processes.

The reasoning seems a little suspect to me as well. The people who care about low background metals also care about provenance. I doubt instrument manufacturers or universities and research institutes are buying their steel off the black market.
posted by Dr Dracator at 7:40 AM on May 6, 2017 [1 favorite]


In a science fiction world, it would turn out to be an evil supervillain with something like the Glomar Explorer who needs the low-background steel for his evil plot.

I suspect Elon Musk.
posted by procrastination at 7:52 AM on May 6, 2017 [4 favorites]


Are they going after it because it's low background steel?
I suspect that was a joke. (And a delightful one.) Though, I guess if you're in the business of making parts for commercial radiation detectors - rather than, say, pressure vessels for high profile physics experiments - it doesn't seem entirely crazy that you'd buy cheap low background steel from some guy your cousin knows.

The fact bulk steel could possibly worth the effort of picking it up off the ocean floor is pretty astonishing. Seems like the black market artifact trade would be the obvious choice, but it's hard to imagine you'd take the whole ship. I guess you get the former for free when you do the later.

If I were clandestinely stealing wrecked ships, I'd fill them with air bladders and tow them to secluded bays in places where local officials can be paid to look the other way. Seems a lot easier than building a giant claw that can lift a warship, or cutting it into pieces on the ocean floor.
posted by eotvos at 8:36 AM on May 6, 2017 [4 favorites]


Someone remind me why Indonesians should "respect" the detritus of a war that had nothing to do with them and was fought in their backyard by a bunch of colonialist powers?
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:43 AM on May 6, 2017 [11 favorites]


I think the mystery's really much more about the Why than How. Is there really much of a market for this low-background steel?
posted by Rash at 8:46 AM on May 6, 2017


Someone remind me why Indonesians should "respect" the detritus of a war that had nothing to do with them and was fought in their backyard by a bunch of colonialist powers?

I know what you're trying to say here, but the formulation that the war in the Pacific was nothing to do with the Indonesians is a bit awkward.
posted by atrazine at 9:01 AM on May 6, 2017 [3 favorites]


Someone remind me why Indonesians should "respect" the detritus of a war that had nothing to do with them and was fought in their backyard by a bunch of colonialist powers?

I think it's less about the ships themselves and more about the possible human remains. Would you have the same flip attitude about someone digging up Civil War graves for artifacts because it was fought in their backyard? Or is that one okay because it wasn't some foreign war being fought?
posted by sixfootaxolotl at 9:02 AM on May 6, 2017


Someone remind me why Indonesians should "respect" the detritus of a war that had nothing to do with them and was fought in their backyard by a bunch of colonialist powers?

Romusha and comfort women.
posted by IndigoJones at 9:08 AM on May 6, 2017 [1 favorite]


I vote against wrecking balls to break up the ships. For one thing, the machines aren't built to be underwater, and I'm sure there are all sorts of subtle details which would break. There's one obvious detail. The balls are hung on a chain, and I think the water would absorb a lot of the force.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 9:34 AM on May 6, 2017 [4 favorites]


The people who care about low background metals also care about provenance. I doubt instrument manufacturers or universities and research institutes are buying their steel off the black market.

I doubt they do, but I also doubt they bother to research the supply chains of the reputable companies they do buy things from. It's the middle-men who profit off this kind of thing, not the consumers.
posted by Jon_Evil at 9:53 AM on May 6, 2017


If I were clandestinely stealing wrecked ships, I'd fill them with air bladders and tow them to secluded bays

Exactly. Like Raise The Titanic, or Captain Nemo in The Mysterious Island (the movie, not the book). That's why it looks like they 'just disappeared.' Still sounds like Bond villain stuff, to me. Why go to the trouble? What's the angle?
posted by Rash at 10:00 AM on May 6, 2017


Started reading this as if it was a hoax. Ship salvage is a vastly bigger project than you can imagine. Think cable thicker than a thigh. A claw that would be large enough would be hard to have manufactured without being a major news item itself. The claw would be bigger than most houses and what would lift that? A sequence of bladders would need pumps of incredible power and inserting dozens or hundreds into the hold of a ship is not a couple guys, more like a significant number of the best divers in the world, dozens of experts.

Lifting a full sized ship is more of a nation state level project.

Steel salvage rates were pretty high a few years ago but dropped significantly.

The ocean is big but that's not the empty southern ocean, there is shipping and fishing traffic and that kind of project isn't sweep in overnight, that's a weeks or months long project. Interesting story but something does not quite add up.
posted by sammyo at 10:14 AM on May 6, 2017 [5 favorites]


Lifting a full sized ship is more of a nation state level project.

It's complicated but could be done if anyone wanted to enough (meaning, hire the right people and spend lots of $$$). What turns it into a nation-state level project is that it has to be a secret. Hiring, training, staging, specialized tools, logistic support, execution... and none of the hundreds of people it would take to support this are going to have an indiscreet conversation in front of the bar girls ashore?
posted by ctmf at 10:40 AM on May 6, 2017


My money is on either (a) time traveling historians or (b) alien time traveling historians.
posted by mikelieman at 11:14 AM on May 6, 2017 [2 favorites]


I am just amazed that someone would/could undergo such an endeavor clandestinely.

As far as desecration goes, I think it always depends on what could be gained, and by whom. I've no doubt the US as a nation would "desecrate" anything if thought it necessary. At which point, it wouldn't be desecration any more, but more along the lines of national importance. To a perhaps small band of metal scavengers capable of pulling off such a thing, with no emotional connection to the wrecks involved, why would they consider the wrecks as anything other than abandoned old hulks of steel? If a party values the tragic hunk of steel you left on my turf, then I'd consider it your responsibility to pay me to protect it, or get it the hell out of here yourself. As it is, I view it as just another resource to be mined, that isn't even a natural feature of the place where it's taken.
posted by 2N2222 at 11:48 AM on May 6, 2017 [4 favorites]


I thought it was decided that it was the Chinese salvaging them for the low background steel that will never be replaceable now bombs have been dropped.
It will be worth a fortune in the future.
posted by Burn_IT at 1:17 PM on May 6, 2017 [2 favorites]


The sheer totality of these thefts has had real ripple effects in Indonesian communities. In taking away the wrecks, the illegal salvagers have also taken away the fisheries of the area. They’ve also put a big dent in the region’s underwater tourism industry.

If the wrecks are being regularly visited by fishermen and recreational divers, how did the colossal project of removing them go unnoticed? As other have said, it doesn't make sense as presented here.
posted by Koheleth at 2:47 PM on May 6, 2017 [1 favorite]


There's lots of old steel in non-sunken ships, or old buildings, or railways. And if we really needed to, we could make more by using low-background elements recovered through electrochemical processes. Nothing about this story makes sense.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:51 PM on May 6, 2017


Lifting a full sized ship is more of a nation state level project.

That's exactly the vibe I got off this story, though I couldn't begin to guess who or why.
posted by quite unimportant at 3:31 PM on May 6, 2017


Borg.
posted by Construction Concern at 3:36 PM on May 6, 2017 [1 favorite]


I thought it was decided that it was the Chinese salvaging them for the low background steel that will never be replaceable now bombs have been dropped.
It will be worth a fortune in the future.


Seems like a good guess to me. The Chinese government knows where it is from so no worries or fuss about the provenance or legality. Full resources of a major state available. Once you have the system set up to do it, it makes more sense that many many wrecks disappear and not just one.
posted by Meatbomb at 5:31 PM on May 6, 2017 [2 favorites]


Burn_IT: " Chinese salvaging them for the low background steel that will never be replaceable now bombs have been dropped."

We could make low background radiation right now just by not using atmospheric oxygen when making it.
posted by Mitheral at 7:19 PM on May 6, 2017


My understanding is that low background steel is getting to be less important simply because as a planet we haven't been exploding nuclear weapons as much anymore.
posted by ckape at 9:55 PM on May 6, 2017


Here (pdf) is an interesting application note from Canberra. A couple of quotes:
Post World War II steel is contaminated by 60Co which was widely used in blast furnace crucible liners to monitor wear or breakthrough. Since stainless steel is a heavily recycled material there is virtually no such thing as virgin stainless. By batch testing, however, we can select stainless with diminishingly small 60Co content.
So apparently some of the 60Co in steel was intentionally put there (and also the occasional accidental melting of an orphan medical source is sadly a thing). Also more vaguely:
Canberra has a source of 60Co free steel and this material is suitable for many applications, but for ultra low-level counting it is a poor choice [...]
I remember older marketing material specifically mentioning WWII battleship steel from Scapa Flow, but now they're down to the more generic "a source".
posted by Dr Dracator at 2:39 AM on May 7, 2017


So, we don't have any "after" pics of the pillaged sites in this article. Coupled with the level of difficulty of sneaking the Glomar Explorer out or otherwise managing to do what's been described with the results described, the more I think about this the more skeptical I'm feeling. That everything related in the story is accurate as described. I'll be curious to see how this story develops.
posted by rmd1023 at 6:32 AM on May 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


Ping pong balls. Scrooge McDuck looking for profit.
posted by jeribus at 9:46 AM on May 8, 2017


There's 3D mapping of some of them here. I'm not sure actual pictures would mean a lot more, since a picture of an empty sea bed could be from anywhere. I suppose it could be a hoax, but it would seem a fairly pointless one.
posted by tavella at 10:07 AM on May 8, 2017


Oh cool. Thanks. So, not *necessarily* the "and not a trace of a single bold remained" as described but still a fuckliad of metal disappeared. This seems like a much larger undertaking than a pirate fishing fleet, which is another example of illegal work that gets folded into the "legit product" pipeline.
posted by rmd1023 at 6:40 PM on May 8, 2017


It seems like an awful lot of the logistical problems people are raising, including the "visibility of operations" problem, would be easily solved by just bribing the shit out of a few Indonesian politicians/sailors.
posted by Rumple at 8:24 PM on May 8, 2017 [1 favorite]


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