Quagga Saga

11/01/2023
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    Nicholas Lusardi looks at the wing of a downed P-39 Airacobra fighter plane in Lake Huron, Michigan. Archaeologists scramble to locate Great Lakes shipwrecks and downed planes before quagga mussels destroy them. (Wayne Lusardi via AP)
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    Quagga mussels cover the engine of the Bell P-39 Airacobra in Lake Huron, Michigan. The plane crashed during a training mission in April 1944, killing Lieutenant Frank Moody, a Tuskegee airman. (Wayne Lusardi via AP)
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    Quagga mussels cover the deck and helm of the downed schooner Trinidad in Lake Michigan. (Tamara Thomsen via AP)
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    Mussels carpet the bell of Trinidad. (Tamara Thomsen via AP)
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    A wildlife official displays a handful of quagga mussels. The invasive mussels clog piping and mechanical systems of industrial plants, utilities, and dams. (AP/Ted S. Warren)
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    This boat propeller encrusted with quagga mussels was found in Nevada. (AP/Ted S. Warren)
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Dishes stacked in underwater cupboards. Submerged planes that appear airworthy. The Great Lakes’ frigid fresh water once preserved wrecks extremely well. Now a one-footed animal destroys these sunken time capsules, pitting divers against the clock.

The problem is quaggas.

Quagga mussels are fingertip-sized freshwater mollusks with enormous appetites. According to biologists, they’re the leading invasive species in most of the Great Lakes.

“Every shipwreck is covered with quagga mussels in the lower Great Lakes,” says Wisconsin state maritime archaeologist Tamara Thomsen.

Quaggas are native to Russia and Ukraine. Scientists first discovered them in the Great Lakes in 1989. Freighters visiting nearby ports may have dumped them into the water.

The mussels can clog pipes and waterways. As they proliferate, they cause overwhelming destruction to underwater ship and plane wrecks. Quaggas can burrow into wood. Divers who try to brush them off peel away layers. The mussels stack themselves so thickly they crush walls and decks. Acid in their feces corrodes steel and iron.

Maritime archaeologist Wayne Lusardi lists shipwreck sites in the lower Great Lakes. All have been consumed by quaggas: the SS Daniel J. Morrel, a freighter that sank during a storm on Lake Huron in 1966; the SS Cedarville, a freighter that sank in the Straits of Mackinac in 1965; the SS Carl D. Bradley, which went down in northern Lake Michigan in 1958.

“Divers started discovering [planes] in the 1960s and 1970s,” Lusardi says. “Some were so preserved they could fly again. [Now] . . . the planes look like Swiss cheese. [Quaggas are] literally burning holes in them.”

No one has found a workable way to stop quaggas—at least not on a large scale, says freshwater scientist Harvey Bootsma. “The only way they will disappear from a lake as large as Lake Michigan is through some disease, or possibly an introduced predator,” he says.

The Bible reveals that everything on Earth as it is will pass away. (Hebrews 1:10-11) For some, that seems like a tragedy. But Christians know it’s a triumph that points to a new Earth. (1 Corinthians 15:54)

The quagga saga leaves archaeologists and historians scrambling. They want to locate as many historic wrecks as possible before they disintegrate.

Lusardi hopes to salvage a plane that went down in Lake Huron during a training exercise in 1944. The crash killed Frank H. Moody, a Tuskegee airman—one of a group of World War II black military pilots.

“When we lose those tangible, preserved time capsules of our history, we lose our tangible connection to the past,” historian Brendon Baillod says. “Once they’re gone, it’s all just a memory.”

Why? Preserving records and artifacts is a God-given impulse. It recognizes that God’s creation and His work in the world are worth remembering.

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