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