Environment

Melting Arctic ice turns abandoned military base into ticking toxic time bomb

Melting Arctic ice turns aband...
Melting Arctic ice could release toxic waste from an abandoned US military base, a new study says
Melting Arctic ice could release toxic waste from an abandoned US military base, a new study says
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Camp Century was built into the Greenland Ice Sheet during the Cold War, and abandoned in 1967, leaving behind hundreds of thousands of liters of pollutants
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Camp Century was built into the Greenland Ice Sheet during the Cold War, and abandoned in 1967, leaving behind hundreds of thousands of liters of pollutants
Melting Arctic ice could release toxic waste from an abandoned US military base, a new study says
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Melting Arctic ice could release toxic waste from an abandoned US military base, a new study says

With temperatures rising across the globe, the poles are being hit particularly hard. Melting Arctic sea ice could wreak plenty of havoc through rising sea levels, but other potential hazards are coming to light. If these warming trends continue, a US military base, built into the Greenland Ice Sheet and abandoned since the 1960s, could eventually be freed from the ice – along with hundreds of thousands of liters of waste and pollutants.

A "city under the ice," Camp Century was built in Greenland in 1959 encased within the ice sheet. Officially, it was there for scientific research and to experiment with construction techniques under those extreme conditions. Unofficially, it was intended to develop into a nuclear missile launch site within reach of the Soviet Union. While that never eventuated, the facility did house up to 200 people and was powered by a nuclear reactor.

When the camp was decommissioned in 1967, everybody essentially just up and left, on the assumption that the ice would entomb the facility and seal the harmful materials within. And to an extent it has, with snowfall piling a further 35 m (115 ft) of ice on top of the camp in the years since.

Camp Century was built into the Greenland Ice Sheet during the Cold War, and abandoned in 1967, leaving behind hundreds of thousands of liters of pollutants
Camp Century was built into the Greenland Ice Sheet during the Cold War, and abandoned in 1967, leaving behind hundreds of thousands of liters of pollutants

But in a new study led by William Colgan, a climate scientist at York University in Toronto, researchers looked at climate projections and found that by the end of the century, the ice might be melting faster than it's being replenished.

"When we looked at the climate simulations, they suggested that rather than perpetual snowfall, it seems that as early as 2090, the site could transition from net snowfall to net melt," says Colgan. "Once the site transitions from net snowfall to net melt, it's only a matter of time before the wastes melt out; it becomes irreversible."

The wastes in question pose a significant hazard. Thankfully, the nuclear reaction chamber was removed when the camp was abandoned, but the infrastructure is still there, which, according to the researchers' studies of Arctic building materials of the time, could contain toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). That's on top of an estimated 200,000 liters (53,000 gal) of diesel fuel, and 240,000 liters (63,400 gal) of waste water, including sewage and radioactive coolant from the generator. Melting ice could carry these pollutants to the ocean, putting marine ecosystems at risk.

So what can be done about it? For now, not much, according to the study. Considering its depth, an attempted cleanup would be costly and difficult. "It really becomes a situation of waiting until the ice sheet has melted down to almost expose the wastes before anyone should advocate for site remediation," says Colgan.

When that time comes, the question of who is responsible for the effort is a politically sensitive one. Being a US base built on Danish land, but within the now-self-governing territory of Greenland, international law is a little unclear about the responsibilities for existing hazardous waste.

"The study identifies a big hole in the extant set of laws and rules we have to deal with environmental problems globally," comments Jessica Green, a political scientist at New York University.

The research was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Source: University of Colorado, Boulder

14 comments
David Antoni
Its US mess, yet again and their job to clean it up but bet they will screw that up as they have done with everything else done since WW2.
Kaiser Derden
What warming trend ? none for 19 years ...
Mel Tisdale
Bad as the release of pollutants will be, it palls into insignificance compared to the danger of methane (a potent greenhouse gas) being released due to melting clathrates. This has already begun with kilometer wide methane plumes having been recorded. When the summer sea ice eventually disappears completely, it will be anybody's guess as to whether it goes into runaway mode. Can't blame the scientists, heaven knows they have given us enough warnings of the danger. It is not as though the ice-core record doesn't show it having happened in the past with the quickest transition to it becoming an extinction event being 13 years. If only release of toxins were all we have to concern us.
tyme2par4
So in 200 years, it might be a problem? If we don't slow or stop climate change. I'm not too concerned about it. In 200 years, that wastewater could well be inert anyway. Not the nuclear, but the human waste.
PeterOsborne
The article says " might be" then, it might not. Regardless in 45 days, it will freeze up again until May. 3017 when it will start to melt......and the net average temp. will be caused by differing energy levels from the sun, as it has been for billions of years.
BrianK56
David is right, it is the responsibility of the US government to restore it to it's original condition. Too much money and time, too much BS, get it in gear and clean it up.
ClarenceFeinour
I'd bet that by 2090 most or all reading this article will be long gone so we won't be around to see what the then so call scientist will be forecasting. It's always doom and gloom with those guys. Sounds like we have another hockey stick forecast that can't be proven and by putting a distant date on it, its easy to switch back to the Global freeze that these guys were forecasting back in the 70s. They can't seem to make their minds up. Are we going to freeze to death or die from heat strokes. Meanwhile Fukeshima continues to pollute the oceans and nobodys talking about it.
JoanHilton
It seems that everything the government touches turns to s**t. Here in Alaska everywhere the Army was based has huge problems with pollution. Clean up has been going on for over 25 years and will probably continue for many years to come. Some of the contamination is due to waste being sent up from the lower 48 since Alaska is so large it can handle it. Guess what it isn't.
Chris Curl
63000 gallons of sewage and radioactive discharge is essentially nothing. Just more worrying folks over nothing.
habakak
'...researchers looked at climate projections and found that by the end of the century, the ice might be melting faster than it's being replenished....' Really. You can predict what the climate will be like in 90 years? You are a fool if you think you can. Because we know so much more than 100 years ago, it does not mean we know a lot. The climate has incalculable flux and so many variables. And to predict that for the globe or Greenland 90 years from now is a fools errand. Besides that we can't do anything about it except for cleaning up our global energy production system. And that is in process. No whining or projecting is going to change that. The energy production system will go clean as it becomes economically viable. It's already gaining massive momentum. We will also find out in a few decades that this is a non-issue.