Etymology. The first to name it the Baltic Sea (“Mare Balticum”) was 11th century German chronicler Adam of Bremen. The origin of the name is speculative. He may have based it on the mythical North European island Baltia, mentioned by Xenophon. The Baltic Sea is surrounded by nine countries: Denmark, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Russia, Finland and Sweden. As long as people have lived here, the Baltic Sea has served as an avenue to connect the bordering countries and as a source of human livelihood. The largest expanse of brackish water in the world, the semienclosed and relatively shallow Baltic Sea is of great interest to scientists, while to historians it represents the economic core of the Hanseatic League, the great medieval trading group of northern European ports. The Baltic is the youngest sea on our planet, emerging from the retiring ice masses only some 10,000-15,000 years ago. Governed by special hydrographical and climatic conditions, the Baltic Sea is one of the planet’s largest bodies of brackish water.
Every year, the surface of the Baltic Sea is at least partially covered by ice. Compared to many other seas, the Baltic Sea is low in salinity and quite shallow. These features make it a globally unique marine area.
The Neva is the largest river that drains into the Baltic Sea, with a discharge of 2500 m3/s. In terms of the average discharge of rivers in Europe, Neva River ranks fourth after the Volga, Danube, and Rhine. The 281,000 km2 basin is shared by Russia and Finland.
The German Baltic Sea is one of the most beautiful tourist destinations in Europe, but unfortunately, most foreign tourists do not know about its existence. This beautiful S shaped coastline is some of the best coastal features that Germany has to offer and is one of the most popular destinations for local tourists.
Russia considers the independence of the Baltic states and their active role in NATO and the EU as threats to Russia’s security, sovereignty, and autonomy. The Vladimir Putin regime’s operational code inclines it to respond with multiple, varied, and often independent covert political means.
In February 2010, Finnish president Tarja Halonen hosted an ambitious one-day ‘action summit’ in Helsinki to rescue the Baltic from imminent disaster, with not only the leaders of the nine nations surrounding the Baltic but also European Union representatives and 1,500 other delegates from everything from major businesses to environmental activists.
Halonen said she called the summit because someone had to and because it was perverse to have ‘some of the richest and most environmentally conscious countries on Earth on the shores of one of the world’s most polluted seas.’
The Baltic is indeed in a state of crisis. This sea, half frozen over during winter, is in some ways a gigantic estuary for the 250 rivers that flow into it, including the Oder and the Neva. The rivers make the sea much less salty than other seas, which is why it freezes over so readily. Salty water does flow in from the North Sea, bringing oxygen, which is vital for the Baltic’s marine life, but it is the inflow of fresh water that dominates.
That is why the Baltic has many of its own local species, such as the Baltic Sea herring, and why the seabed swarms with the shrimplike Monoporeia affinis, which was originally a freshwater shrimp.
The flood of filth
Unfortunately, the rivers are also laden with pollutants, which have been steadily building up. Each year, some 738,000 tonnes (814,000 tons) of nitrates and more than 36,000 tonnes (40,000 tons) of phosphates flood into the sea from farming runoff, human sewage, and airborne pollution. Phosphate levels in particular are escalating in the Baltic and beginning to trigger the algal blooms that have already turned the Black Sea into a dead zone through eutrophication – the suffocation of marine life through oxygen depletion. One of the unique problems of the Baltic is that besides the massive runoff of chemicals from Polish farms and sewage from Russian cities, it has tens of thousands of isolated holiday homes on the Swedish coast flushing untreated human waste directly into the sea. It is not just the river-borne pollutants that are so damaging to the Baltic. It has long been a dumping ground for industrial and chemical waste. Indeed, half a century ago, many people thought it was a safe place to dispose of things. Huge quantities of chemical weapons were dumped in the sea after World War II, and industry has been following suit ever since. In 2006, 23,000 barrels of mercury from an unknown source were found on the seafloor off Sweden. There are fears that the construction of the giant Nord Stream underwater pipeline from Russia to Germany could stir up some of the toxic chemicals and World War II weapons that have settled on the seafloor.
The Baltic was once a rich source of fish for the people living around it, sustaining the lives of millions of people through the centuries. Cod, herring, hake, plaice, flounder, sea trout, and turbot are all key elements of the cuisine of Baltic countries such as Poland, famous for its pickled herrings. But the Baltic is a small, comparatively shallow sea, and the impact of industrial scale fishing has been too much for its limited resources to bear. Fish catches are declining rapidly and European Union regulators and scientists are constantly negotiating about what level of fishing is allowable if fishing is to survive there at all.
If all this was not enough, the Baltic is now beginning to face a new threat. Early in 2008, the dreaded American comb jellyfish, Mnemiopsis leidyi, was spotted in the Baltic. This is the jellyfish that multiplied explosively in the Black Sea and devoured many native species of small fish. There are grounds for concern that the Baltic, with its severely weakened ecosystem, may suffer the same fate.
Conferences such as the Helsinki summit in 2010 show there is an awareness at all levels that there is a problem, and targets are set for everything from reduction of farm runoff to setting fishing quotas. But is it all too little too late?