Melting Greenland Ice Sheet To Release Cold War–Era Toxic Wastes Buried By US Military

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The portion of the Greenland ice sheet covering the Cold War–era US military base known as Camp Century — also known as “the city under the ice” — could start to melt by the end of the century, according to new research from CIRES (a partnership between NOAA and the University of Colorado Boulder) and others.

“The northeast portal to Camp Century during construction in 1959.” Image by US Army.

When Camp Century does melt, there will likely be significant quantities of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), sewage, radioactive coolant, wastewater, and diesel fuel, amongst other things, that will be released into the local environment and waters.

The researchers estimate (based on camp inventories) that around 240,000 liters (63,000 gallons) of wastewater, sewage, and radioactive coolant (from the nuclear generator that had been installed there) is buried under the ice — as well as around 200,000 liters (53,000 gallons) of diesel fuel. The total contamination site covers 55 hectares (136 acres), going by historical US army engineering documents and analysis of ground-penetrating radar data (from NASA’s Operation IceBridge aircraft).

In other words, we’re facing a situation like that in the horror movie The Thing (or in the original story Who Goes There?), except in this case, it’s people that buried the malignant evil that’s to be released from under the ice.

The reality, of course, is that people are leaving a great many such evils (nuclear power plants that won’t be decommissioned properly, poorly stored nuclear waste, chemical waste, heavy metal pollution, etc.) around the world for future generations — even those far into the future — to have to deal with (or, more likely, to simply avoid and not live near if they want to avoid high rates of disease and death).

Owing to the costs, manpower, and resources required, it seems likely that a great many of the nuclear facilities and chemical production facilities of the world will end up eventually being abandoned — as it doesn’t seem likely that nations will be willing to shoulder the costs of decommissioning and environmental remediation in times of war, extreme drought, civil turmoil, crop-yield reductions, mass migrations, growing resource extraction costs, regional water shortages, etc. This, it bears reminding, is what is very likely in store for us as the century moves toward its close (and beyond).

As a study of history shows, as the fundamental resources that a civilization depends upon become scarcer and more expensive to exploit or extract (in our case, this is: concentrated ores, fossil fuel and fertilizer reserves, soil quality, forestry products, fishing stocks, and groundwater, amongst other things), grand projects, infrastructure, ideals, and social cohesion tend to fall by the wayside.

Are people 50–100 years from now really going to be willing to put substantial resources towards the decommissioning of nuclear facilities, or the remediation of the land around chemical production plants, even while being hammered by worsening climate change and the social and geopolitical problems that will accompany it? Or will they simply move and figure that it’s someone else’s problem?

The press release about the melting Greenland ice sheet provides some interesting background:

“In 1959, the US Army Corps of Engineers built Camp Century 200 kilometers (125 miles) inland from the Greenland coast. Encased completely within the ice sheet, Camp Century became known as the ‘city under the ice.’ The camp’s official purpose was to test construction techniques in the Arctic and conduct scientific research. While in operation, the camp housed 85 to 200 soldiers and was powered by a nuclear reactor. Scientists at Camp Century took ice core samples providing climate data still cited in research today.

“The camp also provided proof of concept for a top secret program to test the feasibility of building nuclear missile launch sites close enough to reach the Soviet Union. While never built, a larger planned camp based on the concept of Camp Century would have housed a 4,000-kilometer (2,500-mile) long tunnel system underneath the ice, capable of deploying up to 600 nuclear missiles. Although the camp was built with Denmark’s approval, the missile launch program, known as Project Iceworm, was kept secret from the Danish government. Several years after the camp became operational, Project Iceworm was rejected by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the camp was decommissioned. The Army Corps of Engineers removed the nuclear reaction chamber but left the camp’s infrastructure and all other waste behind, assuming the ice sheet would secure them forever. In the decades since, falling snow has buried the camp roughly 35 meters (115 feet) further underneath the ice.”

Notably, the site’s wastes could actually be exposed far earlier than the end of the century — recent nearby (but lower-elevation) ice-sheet observations seem to point towards this possibility, as Jennifer Mercer, a cryospheric scientist with the National Science Foundation who specializes in Greenland Ice Sheet operations, was quoted as saying. Mercer was not involved in the study, it should be noted.

So, what to do about the issue? The study advocates waiting to begin remediation efforts until after the ice sheet has melted down to the point of nearly exposing the wastes — owing to the technical challenges and very high costs associated with attempting to do so now.

And who will clean the site up when it does come time to do so? The site was built by the US, under Denmark’s approval, but Greenland is now self-governing. Does Denmark then take responsibility for its earlier decision, in a territory that it now doesn’t govern? Will the US take responsibility since it’s the one that built and occupied the city? Or will Greenland be forced to deal with it despite having had no direct hand in the matter?

The new research was detailed in a paper published in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. (The abstract can be found here.)

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James Ayre

James Ayre's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy.

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