Could melting glacier expose long-buried U.S. base?

Environment | Scientists warn toxic waste from the abandoned site could be harmful for the environment
by Michael Cochrane
Posted 8/11/16, 10:55 am

When the U.S. military in 1967 decommissioned and abandoned Camp Century—a secret base dug into the Greenland ice sheet eight years earlier—officials believed the equipment, fuel, and other waste left behind would remain entombed forever, deep in the glacier. But a study published earlier this month by a team of glaciologists raises concerns that the melting, shifting ice sheet could expose potentially toxic materials to the environment.

“When you go to the site nowadays it just looks like flat white,” William Colgan, a physical geographer at York University in Canada and lead author of the study, told NPR. “It looks like everywhere else on the ice sheet, but it’s only when you start to understand what lies beneath the site that it takes on a special significance.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built Camp Century as an Arctic research center. Covering more than 136 acres, the base housed between 85 and 200 people and was powered by a small nuclear reactor. Although some research did go on, Camp Century’s real mission was a project called “Iceworm,” a secret program to test the feasibility of deploying ballistic missiles under the ice sheet.

But the U.S. military rejected Project Iceworm in 1963, and the base moved from year-round to seasonal operations until 1967, when “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,” according to the study.

The U.S. Army removed the nuclear reactor’s reaction chamber but left virtually all the equipment and tunnels intact, including an estimated 53,000 gallons of diesel fuel and 64,000 gallons of waste water, including sewage, in unlined ice sumps. The site also likely contains some reactor coolant waste water as well as toxic compounds called PCBs, which are found in electrical equipment.

“I think it has been viewed, up until the past 20 years, as a place that’s very stable and tectonically still and somewhere you can put something and not worry about it,” said Leigh Stearns, a glaciologist at the University of Kansas who specializes in the Greenland ice sheet.

She told me any glaciologist would say it’s a bad idea to think you could bury waste in a glacier and assume it would lie undisturbed because the glacier is always changing and Greenland is at a fairly low latitude.

“It’s not a very stable ice sheet. It’s very far south and it’s not in equilibrium with our current climate,” she told me. “It’s going to disappear in the next however many thousand years.”

Much uncertainty surrounds the prediction of future climate scenarios, and though Stearns thinks it could be thousands of years before sites such as Camp Century are exposed, the study authors concluded the ice sheet above the base could begin to melt before the end of this century, based on regional climate models with a “business-as-usual” scenario.

But the ice doesn’t have to melt completely before buried toxic waste could become a problem. With a recent warming trend in the Arctic, scientists are seeing more and more crevasses opening in the Greenland ice sheet, making it difficult to traverse. Stearns believes those cracks in the ice could pose a problem for buried sites such as Camp Century.

“Water can go into those cracks and then if that water interacts with some of this waste sooner, then that can speed up the process of it becoming something we have to deal with,” she said.

Michael Cochrane

Michael is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD correspondent. 

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  • hrh
    Posted: Thu, 08/11/2016 11:09 am

    Is this the same " team of glaciologists" whose ship got frozen in the ice a few years ago, and who had to be rescued? Pardon me if I don't take it too seriously.

    Getting story ideas from NPR? Really?

    Disappointing that World magazine is getting more "worldly" all the time.

  •  Neil Evans's picture
    Neil Evans
    Posted: Thu, 08/11/2016 02:17 pm

    Simply reporting on the world is not "worldly."

    The point that is interesting to me is that present "scientists" criticize the near-sightedness of past scientists while asuming their own sight is 20/20.

  • JM
    Posted: Thu, 08/11/2016 08:05 pm

    I disagree.  I appreciate WORLD's reporting on happenings that are not specifically religious in nature. 

  • Pastor Mr Kim T Johnson
    Posted: Fri, 08/12/2016 12:09 am

    I'm not sure where this story originated, but after reading several related articles I think this is much ado about nothing.  Most of them say things like, "could release", "may trigger", or "threatens to be exposed" after several hundred or thousands of years.  It is based on antiquated computer models of "global warming/climate change", etc.
     that have some seriously questionable methods.

    Forgive me if I don't put on my "Worry Hat" just yet.

  • Laura W
    Posted: Fri, 08/12/2016 10:47 am

    If I recall correctly, over the last several years, the glaciars in the arctic have generally been decreasing, while the glaciers in the antarctic have generally been increasing. This site is in the arctic, so it is not unreasonable to think that the ice might be unstable and either melt or crack sometime in the forseeable future, releasing polutants into the ocean. I'm not real convinced by anything I've heard to argue for a sustained warming trend overall, but that doesn't mean that we can assume that temperatures aren't going to fluctuate anywhere on the earth, either. If we can arrange a cleanup operation that won't be too exhorbitantly expensive, that seems like a reasonable precation for our country to act as a global "good citizen".

  • hawaiicharles
    Posted: Fri, 08/12/2016 02:46 pm

    I definitely gotta agree here.  The alarmism is based on the notion that temperatures will continue increasing indefinitely.  However, we know from historical records that there's about a 1000-year cycle of warming and cooling happening in the northern hemisphere.  There are even names for past periods.  One is the "Medieval Warm Period", which lasted from about 800 to 1350.  During that time, Vikings were able to establish a colony on Greenland and even travel to North America.  In Europe, the warmer temperatures enabled grapes to be grown in England.  This was followed by the "Little Ice Age", which lasted from roughtly 1350 to 1850.  Temperatures were much colder in Europe during this time, and the Thames River in England regularly froze over during the winter.  Now we're in another warm period, and if the cycle continues, we can expect it to last another 300-400 years, and then there will be another cool period.  In short, there's really nothing to be alarmed about.


  • Laura W
    Posted: Fri, 08/12/2016 06:53 pm

    For overall global warming, yes, but we're talking about something that could become problematic within the next hundred years or so if present trends continue. And if not then, do we really want to leave something behind that could be an issue for whoever's still around for the next major warm period, if the earth endures that long? Even if it's only a small chance that it will actually be released, the damage to the area would be substantial, so I don't think we should just assume that it won't be an issue and do nothing.