SOURCE: American Geophysical Union

DATE: August 4, 2016

SNIP: Climate change could remobilize abandoned hazardous waste thought to be buried forever beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet, new research finds.

Camp Century, a U.S. military base built within the Greenland Ice Sheet in 1959, doubled as a top-secret site for testing the feasibility of deploying nuclear missiles from the Arctic during the Cold War. When the camp was decommissioned in 1967, its infrastructure and waste were abandoned under the assumption they would be entombed forever by perpetual snowfall.

But climate change has warmed the Arctic more than any other region on Earth, and a new study finds the portion of the ice sheet covering Camp Century could start to melt by the end of the century. If the ice melts, the camp’s infrastructure, as well as any remaining biological, chemical and radioactive waste, could re-enter the environment and potentially disrupt nearby ecosystems…

The team found the waste at Camp Century covers 55 hectares (136 acres), roughly the size of 100 football fields. They estimate the site contains 200,000 liters (53,000 gallons) of diesel fuel, enough for a car to circle the globe 80 times. Based on building materials used in the Arctic at the time, the authors speculate the site contains polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), pollutants toxic to human health. They also estimate the site has 240,000 liters (63,000 gallons) of waste water, including sewage, along with an unknown volume of low-level radioactive coolant from the nuclear generator.

Based on ice sheet observations near Camp Century but at lower elevations, the camp’s waste could be exposed sooner than the study’s models predict.