Climate change unearths Cold War secrets

Hazardous waste abandoned under the Greenland Ice Sheet during the Cold War could be released into the environment as a result of climate change. The waste was buried at a military camp built at the height of the Cold War.

The US military base Camp Century was built in the Greenland Ice Sheet in 1959 as a top-secret site for testing the feasibility of nuclear missile launch sites in the Arctic. According to the University of Zurich, when the camp was decommissioned in 1967 its hazardous waste was abandoned under the assumption that it would remain buried deep beneath perpetual snow and ice of the Greenland Ice Sheet.

All that could change with global warming. A team of researchers from Canada and Switzerland have found that a portion of the ice sheet covering Camp Century could start to melt by the end of the century, releasing any remaining biological, chemical and radioactive wastes into the environment.

According to their study, Camp Century – which is buried some 35 metres beneath the ice and covers 55 hectares – contains around 200,000 litres fuel. The researchers also suspect that the site contains PCBs, around 240,000 litres of wastewater, including sewage, along with an unknown volume of low-level radioactive coolant from the nuclear generator used to power the site.

Given that the Arctic is warming faster than other parts of the planet, the team concluded that the hazardous waste will not remain entombed in the ice forever. “The climate simulations indicate that perpetual snow won’t last forever; indeed, it seems likely that the site could transition to net melt as early as 2090,” said co-author Horst Machguth from University of Zurich.

And once the site transitions from net snowfall to net melt, it’s only a matter of time before the waste melts out into the neighbouring marine ecosystem.

“Two generations ago, people were interring waste in different areas of the world, and now climate change is altering those sites,” said lead author William Colgan from York University in Toronto, Canada. “It’s a new breed of political challenge we have to think about.”


Image credit: US Army

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