As if there weren’t already enough reasons to worry about climate change, you can add another to your list: toxic nuclear seepage.
Back in the Cold War, a lot of US defence strategy came down to placing nuclear weapons within a few minutes’ striking distance of Soviet cities and bases. That led the military to consider some bizarre real estate for its silos — including, for example, the moon.
But one (more feasibly Earth-bound) project explored the possibility of embedding ballistic missiles within Greenland’s ice sheet.
In 1959, the Army Corps of Engineers set up Camp Century — a network of tunnels underneath Greenland’s frozen surface. By 1962, the site was a full-time hub for Project Iceworm, a plan to establish a “subsurface railway” servicing 600 buried ballistic missiles. At any given time, between 85 and 200 soldiers lived and worked in the Arctic base. A nuclear reactor powered the site.
When the army abandoned Camp Century in 1967, it left behind a lot of waste, some of it radioactive, beneath the ice. Assuming that barren northwestern Greenland would lie frozen forever, it didn’t seem worth the effort and expense to haul it all away.
A new paper in the journal Geophysical Research Letters shows that was not the wisest decision.
The pace of climate change in the Arctic has far exceeded that in the rest of the world. The researchers found that meltwater around Camp Century exceeds the annual freeze, meaning that eventually all that waste will end up exposed.
It could happen within just 88 years of melting at the current rate.
“The question is whether it’s going to come out in hundreds of years, in thousands of years, or in tens of thousands of years,” James White, a University of Colorado climate scientist who did not work on the study, said in a press release. “This stuff was going to come out anyway, but what climate change did was press the gas pedal to the floor and say, ‘it’s going to come out a lot faster than you thought.'”
An inventory of waste at the base found that in addition to the nuclear material at the site, building materials, oil, and years’ worth of “grey water” — that is, sewage — pose a significant environmental hazard. And it’s still unclear whether the US or Denmark, the country that controls Greenland, will take responsibility for handling the problem.
Ironically, Camp Century was one of the first sites where researchers began to bring climate science into the modern era. In 1964 Willi Dansgaard was allowed to examine ice cores drilled at the site, and used them to show that ice cores capture memories of our planet’s climate history.
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