Military blows up large artillery shell found near Cold Bay

an artillery shell
Military officials say an artillery shell found near Cold Bay in October 2023 was approximately 12 inches in diameter and four feet long (soda can for reference. (Courtesy Harold “Hap” Kremer)

A group of explosives experts from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson traveled to Cold Bay, near the western end of the Alaska Peninsula, last week in response to a local hunter’s report of what appeared to be a large unexploded artillery shell. The ordnance was found in the middle of the federally protected Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, a key habitat for many migratory birds and other wildlife.

U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Tyrone Powell, the explosives ordnance disposal team leader for the Oct. 30 mission, confirmed the hunter did find an unexploded military round.

“It’s big artillery,” Powell said. “When we pulled it out of the ground, it weighed probably six or seven hundred pounds. It took four of us to pull it out.”

The shell was about 12 inches in diameter and 4 feet long. Powell said that particular type of round was first manufactured in 1943, during WWII but could have been built anytime up to the 1990s.

“What was interesting about the round, it was actually split open, so there was no more explosive on the inside. It had to have been underneath the ground for a pretty long time for that to happen,” Powell said.

a crate
The area near where the shell was found. (Courtesy Harold “Hap” Kremer)

Photographs of the munition show that the surrounding area has several large divots in the tundra, which point to former military operations — the U.S. military built a base in the area during the 1940s.

“It looks like it used to be a demolition area for old ordnance,” Powell said. “What we think it was, was one of these old pieces of ordnance … got kicked out of where it was getting blown up. Those sorts of things get buried in the soil, and eventually, they work their way to the surface.”

The military team used explosives to dispose of the munition where it was found — in the middle of the 315,000-acre refuge, which contains one of the world’s largest eelgrass beds.

Noise pollution can have a negative effect on wildlife. But representatives from the refuge said they monitored the birds on nearby lakes before the detonation and that they were still there afterward with little reaction.

Izembek is a crucial habitat for a quarter of a million migratory birds. That includes the Pacific black brant, a rare type of goose whose entire population stops in the refuge at exactly this time of year during its fall migration.

The refuge said the detonation occurred away from the majority of migrating waterfowl and was not near the eelgrass beds where the brants feed.

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