Marine Expert Explains Possible Environmental Impacts of Downed Chinese Balloon

WPDE- Myrtle Beach, South Carolina - February 9, 2023 8:00 am

Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recover a high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Feb. 5, 2023. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tyler Thompson)

Debris scattered across the Atlantic is keeping Navy sailors busy as their search for remnants of the suspected Chinese spy balloon continues.

The balloon was shot down Saturday off the coast of South Carolina and cleanup efforts began Sunday.

The object was estimated to be 200 feet tall. To put that in perspective, the Myrtle Beach Skywheel is 187 feet tall.

As Americans wait to find out what the balloon was made of and what was inside it, questions about possible environmental impacts emerge.

You’ve got materials within the missile, materials in the payload of the balloon, and then the balloon itself. So, lots of different things that may find their way into the ocean,” said Paul Gayes, Coastal Carolina University marine expert.

He said parts of the balloon that weren’t destroyed by the missile inevitably fell 60,000 feet into the ocean–but because of the balloon’s altitude, any toxic chemical compounds were diffused into the atmosphere.

Sailors assigned to Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 recover a high-altitude surveillance balloon off the coast of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, while the Harpers Ferry-class dock landing ship USS Carter Hall (LSD 50) transits nearby, Feb. 5, 2023. (U.S. Navy Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Tyler Thompson)

Marine expert explains possible environmental impacts of downed Chinese balloon photo 3

“Batteries, solar panels and things have some heavy metals and other kinds of concerns, but even though it was a fairly large data load, the presumption is a fair bit of it had been exploded and distributed,” he said. “What gets to the ocean and what concentration remains to be seen.”

Gayes said it’s important to put the situation into context; anything in high concentration is a concern, but if it’s distributed throughout the atmosphere, there’s less of an impact.

He said since it was only one balloon and one missile, there’s one thing he’s more concerned with.

The overall pressure on the environment and the nature that it experiences every day. I mean, there are introductions into the ocean and atmosphere daily and have gone on for decades.”

But he said the number of missiles fired for the military every year has more of an impact than the one missile shot on Saturday.

Gayes added that if the balloon had solar panels and batteries on it, those materials have to be made from lightweight metals in order for the balloon to be able to fly at such a high altitude. He believes the balloon is likely made out of heat-resistant synthetic materials.

 

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