Photo: Brocken Inaglory
Kurt Russell’s alien nemesis isn’t the only “thing” buried under layers of Arctic ice.
As global warming takes hold, glaciers and ice-levels continue to shrink in Northern Greenland. The country is experiencing its hottest temperatures on record, and ice is vanishing faster than it can be replenished.
As layers dissipate, climate change is revealing some interesting finds; hidden mysteries that for years remained beneath the Arctic’s vast, frozen ice fields. One such find is Camp Century, a U.S. military base built in 1959. Until now, the camp has sat dormant beneath heavy snow, but as temperatures rise and snow disappears, Century is preparing for a toxic comeback. Within the base are collections of hazardous waste, including radioactive materials, diesel fuels and sewage and wastewater that according to a new study, could pose significant threats to local ecosystems.
“It’s a new breed of political challenge we have to think about,” says glacier scientist and lead author William Colgan. “Climate change could remobilize the abandoned hazardous waste believed to be buried forever beneath the Greenland ice sheet.” In the study, Colgan explains that the dangerous properties within radioactive, chemical and biological wastes could be reactivated if there’s no snow to block them.
Camp Century was constructed during the height of the Cold War. A group of U.S. soldiers known as “ice-worms” needed a secure location to study nuclear missiles and their respective deployment prospects against Russia. The camp was decommissioned eight years later, but the materials Century housed were never destroyed, due in part to the false impression that it would “keep snowing,” eventually sealing things off from human exposure.
But it’s becoming clearer every day that Camp Century poses significant risks.
“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,” says the University of Colorado’s James White. “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.’”
Cold War bases in the Arctic are nothing new. Just two years ago, Russia revamped what was once the abandoned, barren wasteland of Kotelny Island. Strewn with rusty barrels and perilous terrain, the base stationed on the island has been rebuilt into something that can be used for modern-day military practices.
Camp Century, however, is a different ballgame. Colgan believes that all neighboring snow could potentially melt by the year 2090. Once this occurs, waste will gradually seep out, allowing pollutants to contaminate resources and local water supplies.
“This isn’t just about Denmark and the U.S. having a military treaty from 1951,” Colgan explains. “Greenland is [now] self-governing, and Canada is 400 km away [from Camp Century]. It’s a multigenerational, multinational challenge presented by climate change. We’re moving into an era where there will be more, rather than fewer, bases in the Arctic as it becomes more trafficked. The U.S. and other NATO allies need to demonstrate good will and responsible stewardship of older base sites.”