In the past few decades, rapid climate change has certainly revealed a lot about how our planet is being reshaped and modified. Global warming has been linked to wars, the death of the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem, and it has even altered our farming techniques.
But now, there’s something new that climate change is divulging: history—and some very dangerous history, at that.
Buried beneath Greenland’s ice sheet is an abandoned U.S. Army base. When it was vacated in 1967, the army believed that it would be “preserved for eternity by perpetually accumulating snow.” Left behind were thousands of gallons of raw sewage and radioactive waste.
It appears now, however, that that “eternity” may soon be over.
When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built Camp Century—one of five ice-sheet bases in northern Greenland—in 1959, it was considered an engineering marvel. A bustling site during the Cold War, the base included prefabricated, modular buildings to house 200 people, a dining hall, a recreation facility and a small hospital. There were backup diesel generators, research facilities, vehicle storage units and a nuclear generating plant.
While ostensibly the purpose of the base was for polar research, it also served as the site of the secret Project Iceworm. Fifty feet below the surface ran a series of connecting tunnels with underground railways that ran almost half a mile. Some sections were more than 100 feet deep. The plan was to test the idea of putting nuclear missiles on tracks below the ice, within striking distance of and aimed at the Soviet Union.
Just eight years after its construction, Camp Century was scrapped. It was abandoned in 1967, after the ice sheet began shifting and the army realized that the tunnels wouldn’t last. Six decades of snow have helped to keep the camp hidden.
Five years ago, however, Canada’s York University geographer William Colgan, an arctic researcher in Greenland, heard stories about Camp Century. He then located unclassified records that described what was left behind when it was abandoned. He discovered that in the 136-acre network of collapsing ice tunnels (roughly the size of 100 football fields), the nuclear reactor had been removed, but the low-level radioactive cooling water used in it was not. An estimated 52,000 gallons of diesel fuel—enough for a car to circle the globe 80 times—and 63,000 gallons of wastewater, including sewage, had also been ditched, along with probable polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), toxic compounds in electrical equipment.
In a study published on August 4, 2016, in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union, titled “The abandoned ice sheet base at Camp Century, Greenland, in a warming climate,” Colgan and his team say that as climate change continues to rapidly melt the Greenland ice sheet, those pollutants could spread.
Exposed in a century
In Colgan’s research study, scientists used two climate models to investigate how a future balance of snowfall and ice melt at Camp Century will affect the location. So far, there’s been more snow than melt, and most of the base is buried deeper than it originally was—since being abandoned, at least another 100 feet of snow has fallen on the camp.
But as the climate warms, the zone of ablation (the area where melting outstrips snowfall, resulting in a thinner ice sheet) will migrate inland. One of the climate models projects that if global greenhouse gas emissions continue on the same trajectory as they are on now, Camp Century could be exposed by 2090.
But decades before that, toxic chemicals at the camp could escape. Longer warm periods are causing more cracks on the Greenland ice sheet. Water from melting snow seeps into those cracks and crevasses. The water could then percolate down through the firn, the mix of snow and ice that makes up the sheet, reaching the camp and thus carrying contamination through under-ice channels to the ocean.
The PCBs at Camp Century pose the biggest risk. These long-lived and easily dispersed chemicals accumulate in animals’ fatty tissues and could cause birth defects, cancers, immune system problems and reproductive failure in marine mammals that inhabit the waters surrounding Greenland.
While it’s easy for those of us living now to think in the short-term and not worry about what won’t affect us personally, we should think again. The paper’s findings have already been cited in October 2016, when Vittus Qujaukistoq, Greenland’s minister of industry, labor, trade, energy and foreign affairs, used them to support his demand that Denmark clean up the base and compensate nearby residents.
Such climate-change legal dilemmas are likely to start cropping up more often. Camp Century isn’t the only hazardous dump buried beneath the ice. Cold War-era bases are scattered throughout the area. In Siberia, thawing permafrost may have exposed strains of anthrax that now threaten people. There have been other recent attempts by developing countries to force developed nations to pay for damage from extreme weather, based on the notion that developed countries created the warming problem. Climate change is even causing multigenerational legal challenges.
I wonder if because of our inaction to date, if people 50 to 100 years from now will be inspired to solve the problems they create for future generations; or if they, like us, will prefer to pass them forward.
Let’s hope they’re a bit wiser.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,