(TMU) — A major underwater research station in the Baltic Sea tasked with collecting “priceless” information on environmental conditions has gone missing, baffling its owners and drawing an investigation by German police.
The GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research, a state-funded institute based in Kiel, Germany, said in a Monday statement that the large monitoring station along with a smaller unit had been entirely removed “with great force” from a “restricted area” in Eckernförde Bay last month where boats are not allowed.
The Boknis Eck Observatory was located at the outlet of the bay, just south of the northern border with Denmark. It was stationed 1.1 miles (1.8 km) offshore at a depth of 72 feet (22 meters) underwater.
On August 21, the station went completely silent in what researchers originally believed to be a mere transmission error. But when divers arrived to investigate the scene, all they could find was the “shredded land connection cable” used to power the station.
Since December 2016, the massive marine observatory was used to measure the temperature and quality of seawater, including the levels of salt, oxygen, carbon dioxide and methane in the Baltic Sea.
New upgrades including instruments meant to record marine life and measure dissolved organic material were slated to be installed this month. The area has been the subject of oceanographic monitors since 1957.
Dr. Hermann Bange, the project coordinator for the observatory, has asked for witnesses who may know what happened to step forward.
“At first, we tried to find the devices with our own research and other diving applications. So far without success. That’s why we would be very happy about any hints.”
The station is worth roughly $330,000, according to GEOMAR. However, Bange explained:
“The data that we collect is downright priceless. They help research to register changes in the Baltic Sea and possibly take countermeasures.”
Officials haven’t ruled out the possibility that rough sea conditions such as heavy currents or massive storms, or marine mammals, could have ripped out the observatory. However, due to the heavy weight of the machinery, the possibility of such accidents is unlikely.
Since the story of the disappearance broke, rumors have flooded the internet offering theories as to the cause of the observatory’s disappearance. Suppositions have ranged from the assumption that the station was salvaged by scrap metal thieves to a theory that a Russian submarine was behind the disappearance.
But as Bange admits, a much more mundane culprit could be to blame—a simple boat, possibly an illegal fishing vessel, may have trespassed into the territory and accidentally dragged the facility away. This explanation is likely because fishers routinely ignore the ban on entering the research zone and their trawlers have anchors that could hook into the station, reports Science magazine.
“Fishing boats have transmitters that tell them they’ve entered the research area, but they just switch it off,” Bange said.
While the station may never turn up, insurers will take their time to examine GEOMAR’s claims. Bange promises that GEOMAR “will try to get the observatory back up and running as soon as possible”—a timespan likely to take anywhere from six months to a year.