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  • Duncan Mackay

IMPROBABLE HELGOLAND AND THE UNGENAUIGKEIT PRINCIPLE


It's funny how connections happen. A mutual friend, writer Rob Macfarlane, made the introductions to Professor Jan Rüger who wrote the book 'Heligoland - Britain, Germany and the Struggle for the North Sea'. This extraordinary well-researched book is my definitive guide to the sometimes bizarre history of this speck of Triassic red sandstone (itself a geological anomaly) and its utterly weird status as a geopolitical slingshot pebble in an imperial war of global attrition. I am visiting it because the love of the sea has drawn marine biologists there to the Alfred Wegener Institüt to study the insidious spread of marine micro-plastics. Helgoland also drew Heisenberg there in summer1925 because he suffered from hay fever. Whereupon he sat on a bench, gazed out to sea and invented quantum theory. There is a degree of uncertainty or imprecision (ungenauigkeit) about which particular bench or which view of the ocean but it is funny how connections happen.

The Nord See - North Sea is not the only sea in these parts and climate change is not something invented by Greta Thunberg. Helgoland is underlain by the dehydrated remnants of an entire ocean that simply evaporated into its constituent non-liquid parts, namely halite (salt), anhydrite (potash) and dolomite (magnesium carbonate) by properly serious climate change - and extinction with a really big X. A salty grave marker for the period of time at the Permian-Triassic boundary known as the Great Dying. Here, hidden beneath Helgoland, lie nature's tear stains for the realm that once was the Zechstein Sea, an ocean that simply boiled to death. In another connection the same Zechstein carbonates informed my childhood playground of dolomite stone set Norman castle at Conisborough and my teenage walking adventures along the Cleveland Way above Boulby, the highest sea cliffs in England. Now it is the suspenseful scene of expanded potash mining in the North York Moors National Park albeit more frantic deep below where tunnels bearing trucks the size of double-decker buses are planned to link it to Teesside's industrial quarter. Here also an improbable connection to the former ICI Wilton chemical works with its flaming towers and spluttering flaring gases that once inspired Middlesbrough local hero Ridley Scott to base the opening scenes from sci-fi classic film 'Blade Runner'. These are familiar, not alien, landscapes to me.

Back on Helgoland the Zechstein salt dome that is faulted into prominence beneath the red rocky speck in the North Sea has pushed up the hard Bunter sandstones, green and red striped marlstones and overlying Cretaceous chalk into a tiny food station oasis beloved by crabs, lobsters, migrating birds and Germany's only gannets. Nature might have been tempted to guard it more carefully. Hitler thought that he could drill for oil trapped beneath the salt cap; he tried but failed so turned it into a reinforced concrete fortress using slave labour and the Todt Organisation. In Operation Aphrodite in the autumn of1944 the USAF pinged over experimental radio-controlled B17 bombers packed with explosives steered by plucky pilots who parachuted out of the flying bomb before the target U-boat pens were reached; they failed too. The RAF sent 969 bombers to destroy it on 18 April 1945 whilst the terrified citizens hunkered in shelters dug deep into the red rock's bowels. The shell-shocked inhabitants evacuated just before the RAF returned the following day with 36 Lancasters dropping 10,000lb 'Tallboy' bombs on it . Not content with that destruction, the island was used as a bombing range and in 1947 the Royal Navy then tried to blow up the entire island by packing the sheltering tunnels with naval shells and torpedoes. It was the world's largest non-nuclear explosion. Preceding it, however, was a smaller bang to scare away the resident birds at the insistence of concerned ornithologists. However, the little red rock still stands albeit scarred, lumpy, twisted in parts and a painful memory still for those who as children endured catastrophic bombing, evacuation and exile. Heisenberg simply pondered on the imponderable and succeeded in tapping into the ineffable zeitgeist of all ages not just his own.

There are probably more twitchers here per square kilometre than any other place on Earth and every quivering bush seemed to be surrounded by a posse of camouflage-geared bird watchers toting huge camera lenses and monopod or tripod binoculars waiting for the thrill of an exotic trill. Some had bird-snaring nets and ringing devices ready to pounce like tense but eager bipedal cats. There was news of a rare wald pieper amongst the stripe-headed fieldfares, yellow siskin, perky but tiny goldcrests, a single waxwing and lots of cross resident robins and blackbirds forced to accommodate stray visitors, refugees from the winds, on their turf. Which was a similar situation to the native humans too. On the cliffs the remnant nests of Germany's only gannet colony remained as snaggly smears of mud. rock and marine plastic rope with just one or two fledglings hanging on and still being fed by their parents. Also on the ledges were the crazy lawnmowers of the island, the wild-ish free-roaming free-eating sheep devouring every leaf from exposed gardens in the town as well as the succulent clifftop vegetation. These sheep have a bad reputation for stripping tomato plants in town and making work for the Feur Wehr on cliff rescue duties. Improbable but true.


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