Melting is slowly but surely exposing the waste of a forgotten, frozen Cold War base.
At the peak of the Cold War in 1960, the U.S. government decided that it needed to go really, really cold and construct a subsurface base in Greenland. The North Pole was the quickest route from America to the Soviet Union, and having medium-range missiles in the region seemed liked a good idea.
Named Camp Century due to the fact that it was 100 miles from the polar ice cap, the base proved to be more of a technical achievement than strategic necessity. The project was canceled six years later in part because the ice it was built on was moving. Abandoning the camp, the government just assumed that perpetual snowfall would cover up the site and freeze it up for the foreseeable course of human history.
Now, in a new paper published in , it's possible to see just how wrong they were. "Since the 1960s," writes William Colgan, assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Space Science and Engineering at York University, "the scientific community has recognized the Greenland Ice Sheet to be more sensitive to climate forcing than previously thought." By 2025, there's a 50 percent chance that the ice sheet that covers 80 percent of Greenland will no longer have dry snow at higher elevations.
The real problem is all the waste left behind. A complex military structure (there's about its construction, which is fascinating) powered first by a portable nuclear reactor and later by diesel, Camp Century contained weaponry and a complex set of tunnels. An old Army documentary about the achievement pronounced, "on top of Greenland today, a city is buried."
Colgan's team has identified radioactive waste, diesel fuel, and a "nontrivial quantity of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)," an old electrical coolant banned by the US government in 1979. PCBs are now a "human carcinogen" that can cause not just cancer but severe weight loss, liver problems, and pregnancy complications.
If current trends continue, Colgan and his team estimate that all the frozen waste could "remobilize" within 75 years. PCBs could be washed out of Camp Century on a river of melted ice, eventually driving them towards proglacial lakes. Colgan notes that there "appears to be substantial ambiguity surrounding the political and legal liability associated" with fi the mess. Hopefully, someone figures it out with the same tenacity that the Army Corps of Engineers brought to building it in the first place.