In the early hours of October 8 a mysterious event in the Baltic Sea ruptured an underwater gas pipeline. Coming just a year after saboteurs blew up three of the four Nord Stream pipes under the Baltic it’s not surprising there is speculation about the latest incident.
The pipe damaged earlier this month was the Balticconnector which links Finland and Estonia across the sea. An article published on Friday described the incident as “sabotage” and its author, Luke Coffey from the Hudson Institute, an American thinktank, went on to argue that Russia was behind it. Initial speculation about the Nord Stream attack also accused Russia, though on current evidence a group of Ukrainians appear to be more likely suspects (see previous posts).
While there’s no doubt that Nord Stream was sabotaged, official investigators are unsure whether the damage to Balticconnector was deliberate or accidental. One thing they are confident about, though, is that on this occasion there was no bomb.
Someone or something appears to have moved the pipe sideways, causing it to fracture. Adding to the puzzle over how that happened, around the same time, and “in broadly same geographical area”, a communications cable on the seabed was also damaged.
Investigators have said the pipeline damage “appears to be the result of external action” and they are “still investigating whether this was a deliberate act or not”. The most plausible theory so far is that a ship’s anchor caught hold of the pipe, pulling it out of alignment.
The first sign that something was wrong came at 20.20 UTC on October 7 (1.20 local time on October 8) when the Norsar monitoring organisation picked up seismic signals that coincided with a drop in gas pressure in the pipeline. Norsar estimated the magnitude of the seismic event at 1.0 — considerably smaller than the signals detected from the Nord Stream explosions. “We are unable to determine if the event was caused by a sudden release of gas under high pressure, due to rupturing of the pipeline, or from the detonation of an explosive,” Norsar said.
Five or six ships are reported to have been in the area at the time and two of them have aroused particular interest. One is the Russian-owned ore/oil carrier SVG Flot which left St Petersburg on October 5 heading for Kaliningrad. Next day it halted its journey close to the pipeline and remained in that area until the evening of October 8 — some hours after the damage occurred.
When contacted by Helsingin Sanomat, a Finnish newspaper, the ship’s owners, the Baltic Fuel Company, said there were rough seas at the time and the 40-year-old vessel had sheltered by anchoring in the Gulf of Finland — an area of relatively calm water.
“If you look at the weather history, the wind was 25–30 meters per second. The waves were up to three meters high,” a company spokesperson told the paper. “It was there for a couple of days and then resumed its movement.”
Helsingin Sanomat also quoted a sea captain who described the company’s explanation as “understandable”, saying it is common practice for ships to shelter in this way: “The wind was from the north, so the northern part of the Gulf of Finland was quite sheltered. But when you go from there to the main basin of the Baltic Sea, you start getting bumps, i.e. hard waves.”
A second vessel of interest is the NewNew Polar Bear, a Chinese container ship registered in Hong Kong, which is reported to have been passing over the pipeline at the time of the incident.
The tracking data for the NewNew Polar Bear is certainly intriguing. It shows the vessel approached the pipeline at a speed of more than 11 kt, briefly dropping close to 9 kt at a time that coincided with Norsar’s recording of the seismic event. It then picked up speed again.
The suggestion is that the reduction in speed and subsequent recovery could have been caused by its anchor catching hold of the pipe and then breaking free again after causing the damage. However, there was no obvious reason for the ship to have dropped its anchor at that point.
The data does show earlier speed changes earlier in the day at a time of strong winds but by evening the wind had dropped and the NewNew Polar Bear was maintaining a more constant speed, with two noticeable exceptions. The chart (below) posted online by @GaryGnutter shows one of them occcurred at the time of the incident and the other about an hour earlier when it slowed for several minutes.
Coincidence or not? We’ll have to wait and see.