An environmental impact report on upcoming missile tests has bad news for Kwajalein’s giant clam community.

  • More than 200 giant clams could be killed during the testing process, as well as fish and corals.

  • The tests involve the Air Force’s new GBSD ballistic missile and ARRW hypersonic weapons.

  • The U.S. Air Force has released a new environmental impact report on upcoming missile tests, and the results aren’t good for creatures without vertebrae.

    The report says reentry vehicles (RVs) plunging into the waters near Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, including the AGM-183A Agile Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), could kill thousands of coral colonies, hundreds of clams, and a handful of snails, according to Aviation Week & Space Technology’s Steven Trimble:

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    The report itself cites even more casualties with the inclusion of Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) tests set to begin late next year. GBSD is the next intercontinental ballistic missile designed to replace the Minuteman III missiles.

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    The wildlife casualties would be the result of RVs—ice cream-cone-shaped objects that reenter the atmosphere carrying a thermonuclear warhead—splashing down in the target area. The RVs in the tests wouldn’t carry actual warheads.

    The estimated death toll from the tests includes 31,224 coral colonies and nine top shell snails. Additionally, 219 giant clams and 324 humphead wrasse fish—24 adults and 300 juveniles—would be “harassed, injured, or killed,” the report says.

    A h>umphead wrasse is a large, colorful fish that grows up to 6 feet long and lives in coral reef areas. The humphead is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but not the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Instead, the fish is classified as a “Species of Concern.”

    Photo credit: Barcroft Media - Getty Images
    Photo credit: Barcroft Media - Getty Images

    A “combination of exposure to direct payload impact, ejecta, and ground based shock wave” would kill the creatures, the report says. Here’s how the report describes a splashdown event:

    The GBSD payloads would be traveling at hypersonic velocity when it impacts the islet. The kinetic energy released into the substrate would be similar to the detonation of high explosives. The payload will effectively “explode,” with some of its mass reduced to very fine particles (“aerosolized”) and the remainder reduced to an undescribed range of fragment sizes. The substrate at the impact site would be blasted into a range of fragment sizes ranging from powder to larger rocks toward the outer edges of the crater. Some debris and substrate rubble would remain in the crater. The remainder would be thrown from the crater (ejecta). Initially, some of the ejecta would be moving at high velocity (bullet speeds). Some ejecta would move laterally, some would travel upward then fall back down up to 91 m from the impact site.

    Photo credit: Prisma by Dukas - Getty Images
    Photo credit: Prisma by Dukas - Getty Images

    The report continues:

    Any corals and top shell snails directly beneath the payload, or within the crater radius are expected to be instantly killed, with very little left of the organisms that would be recognizable. Beyond the crater, corals and top shell snails would be exposed to ejecta and the ground borne shockwave. Corals and top shell snails immediately beyond the crater would likely experience mortality from impact by high-velocity ejecta, from burial under mobilized crater material, or from exposure to the ground borne shockwave.

    The report also discusses how sonic booms from the tests would affect local wildlife. The reentry vehicles and hypersonic glide body vehicles would streak into the impact area at Kwajalein at speeds faster than the speed of sound. The report estimates the sound level at the impact area at 176 decibels in the water.

    That level, the Air Force thinks, is enough to generate behavioral changes in whales, dolphins, seals, rays, sharks, and other fish, but below the peak pressure threshold for the animals—presumably, the level of noise that would cause real physical damage and lasting harm. As long as the animals are not directly in the path of a reentry vehicle, like the corals, snails, clams, and wrasses, they shouldn’t suffer any permanent damage.

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