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Thaw of Cold War military base creates toxic risk

Camp Century, an abandoned U.S. military base buried under the ice in northwestern Greenland, could one day pose a toxic risk as climate change thins the Greenland Ice Sheet.
October 25, 2016

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In the 1950s, the U.S. military had the idea to get nuclear warheads within striking distance of the Soviet Union by burrowing them into the Greenland Ice Sheet. To support this effort the Army Corps of Engineers built Camp Century, a military base constructed inside a series of tunnels 8 meters below the surface of the ice in northwestern Greenland.

The missile plan, nicknamed Project Iceworm, was soon scrapped; Camp Century was abandoned in 1967, after just 8 years of operation. And now, an analysis in Geophysical Research Letters suggests that the wastes left behind in the 136-acre network of collapsing ice tunnels – buildings, an under-ice railway, grey water and sewage, radiological waste, diesel fuel, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) – could one day pose a risk as climate change thins the Greenland Ice Sheet.

In the paper, researchers use two climate models to investigate the future balance of snowfall and ice melt at Camp Century’s location. So far, there’s been more snow than melt, and most of the base is now buried deeper than it originally was, 36 meters below the ice.

But as the climate warms, the zone of ablation – meaning the area where melting outstrips snowfall, resulting in a thinner ice sheet – will migrate inland, the researchers find. One of the climate models projects that if current trends in global greenhouse gas emissions continue, Camp Century will experience a net loss of ice beginning around 2090.

Eventually, this process could expose Camp Century and its abandoned wastes. But decades before that, toxic chemicals would likely be mobilized by meltwater percolating through the ice sheet. The researchers say that PCBs, persistent toxins that accumulate in animals’ fatty tissues, pose the biggest risk. These chemicals can cause cancers, problems with the immune system, reproductive failure, and birth defects, and could be especially harmful to the marine mammals such as whales and seals that inhabit the waters surrounding Greenland.

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As for the human dimension, “Our study highlights that Camp Century now possesses unanticipated political significance in light of anthropogenic climate change,” the researchers write. The prospect of the re-emergence of military wastes at Camp Century “is an instance, possibly the first, of a potentially new pathway to political dispute associated with climate change.”

Those political disputes are already more than merely theoretical. In October, Vittus Qujaukistoq, Greenland’s minister of industry, labour and trade and foreign affairs, cited the paper’s findings to support his demand that Denmark clean up the base and compensate nearby residents.

Greenland is a colony of Denmark, and Camp Century was built as a result of an agreement between the U.S. and Danish governments. But from a legal point of view, it’s not entirely clear which country is responsible for the wastes left behind.

The deeper irony is that neither country considered that cleanup would ever be necessary at all. “The base was abandoned with minimal decommissioning, as engineering design of the era assumed that the base would be ‘preserved for eternity’ by perpetual snowfall,” the researchers write, in what is perhaps the paper’s most haunting passage.

Scarcely more than half a century ago, in other words, no one imagined that the Greenland Ice Sheet would ever melt. We’ve built our infrastructure on the foundations of such assumptions. And yet, here we are. In the Anthropocene, it seems, we haven’t just shuffled species distributions, reshaped the courses of rivers, and altered weather patterns. We’ve even changed the meaning of eternity.

Source: Colgan W et al. “The abandoned ice sheet base at Camp Century, Greenland, in a warming climate.” Geophysical Research Letters2016.
Header image: Camp Century, Greenland. Credit: US Army via Wikimedia commons.

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