People, Environment

Greenland Melt Could Expose Hazardous Cold War Waste

Greenland Melt Could Expose Hazardous Cold War WasteGreenland Melt Could Expose Hazardous Cold War Waste

When the US military abandoned Camp Century, a complex of tunnels dug into the ice of northwest Greenland, in the mid-1960s, they left behind thousands of tons of waste, including hazardous radioactive and chemical materials.

They expected the detritus would be safely entombed in the ice sheet for tens of thousands of years, buried ever deeper under accumulating layers of snow and ice, reports The International Business Times.

These days, global climate change is causing a massive melting of that ice sheet. The warming in the Arctic, an area experiencing some of the harshest changes, is threatening to expose hazardous Cold War era waste should the ice around that base melt, researchers warned in a recent study.

“Two generations ago, people were interring waste in different areas of the world and now climate change is modifying those sites,” William Colgan, a climate and glacier scientist at York University and lead author of a new study looking at the issue, said.

“It’s a new breed of climate change challenge we have to think about.”

The researchers found that the portion of the ice sheet covering the base, known as Camp Century, could begin melting before the end of the century. Should that happen, any of the biological, chemical and infrastructure wastes could be washed into nearby ecosystems. That includes radioactive waste.

Camp Century covers around 55 hectares—around 100 football fields worth of area—and researchers believe that, in addition to toxic polychlorinated biphenyls there is an unknown amount of low-level nuclear coolant left over there.

The Cold War resulted in unprecedented levels of nuclear stockpiling and testing to determine the best locations to keep warheads in the case of an attack. The United States and Russia led that proliferation, creating tens of thousands of nukes apiece to try and scare off the other from launching an attack.

The US nuclear inventory peaked in the 1960s at just over 30,000 warheads before a slow decline to under 10,000 today. Russian stockpiles peaked in the 1980s around 40,000 weapons before a sharp decline. The two countries claim to have roughly similar amounts of nukes.

Who is responsible for remediation is a potentially thorny problem. Camp Century, for example, was a US military project undertaken with permission from the Danish government, which controlled Greenland at the time.

Today, Greenland is self-governing. Effective cleanup could impact the willingness of Arctic nations to hosts such bases, according to Climate Central.

With increased interest in the Arctic from countries, including the US, Russia and China, “how we deal with Camp Century and its sister bases is an important precedent to set,” Colgan said.