The island of Wangerooge lies around 7km off the coast of North-West Germany. Thanks to its famed tranquillity, it is a favourite holiday destination among young families and elderly and is one of those seemingly remote places that appear to be completely outside of the influence of world events. With a population of just over 1,000 inhabitants, the island is part of the National Park Wadden Sea. Though not overly pretty, it’s home to vast variety of species and so was granted UNESCO World Natural Heritage recognition in 2009.
It seems hard to believe that the 6,000 bombs that were dropped on this 8km long stretch of land off the German coast during an air raid at the end of World War II made a significant contribution to the development of the unique biodiversity we see on the island today. On 25th April 1945, a coalition of British, Canadian and French bombers launched a heavy attack against defence batteries built on the Northern coastline of Wangerooge, dropping around 6,000 bombs within 15 minutes which left the mostly underground military structure largely intact but killed just over 290 forced labourers, civilians, and Allied and German soldiers. The landscape was devastated and severely cratered.
While, over time, most of the craters were overgrown by plants and covered by sand, some developed into small water bodies, consisting of a mixture of freshwater, seawater and brackish water. Today, these 200 to 250 small-scale biotopes are unique in the national park and provide habitat for a number of endangered species, such as the Bog Pond-weed and the protected Natterjack Toad, as well as some species of wet dune slacks.
These sandy, nutrient-poor biotopes are necessary for keeping the dune ecosystem, upon whose resistance the island heavily relies, intact. In the past, Wangerooge has been severely affected by storm floods, greatly damaging the Western coast and, in combination with strong tides, causing the island to move East by a few metres each year. Throughout recent history, the town settlements had to be moved east several times. Additionally, the island itself functions as a natural flood protection for the main coastline.
With weather conditions becoming more extreme and strong storms and floods increasing in likelihood and severity, human-made technological adaptation is most of the time very costly and, if relied upon exclusively, limited in effectiveness. It is only through a combination of technological, behavioural and ecological adaptation that those changing weather conditions can be dealt with effectively.
While it is difficult to believe that something good can come out of something so horrific, it might be in those anthropogenic dune ecosystems developing in and around bomb craters on Wangerooge that we can see the thin line between negative and positive interactions of humans and the natural environment. Arguably, these interactions need to be understood more fully, recognised and used in a sensible manner to adapt to the changing conditions that are, largely, human-made in the first place. Teresa Lappe-Osthege; MA War Studies (2014), current PhD student University of Sheffield