Hazardous waste that lies buried under ice at an abandoned military camp on the Greenland Ice Sheet, is threatening to raise its ugly head due to climate warming.
A recent study conducted by scientists from York University, which was published in the scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters, has revealed legacy hazardous waste dating back to the Cold War era was abandoned at Camp Century — a top-secret military site used for determining the feasibility of using the Arctic as a base for firing nuclear weapons during the Cold War, known as ‘Project Iceworm‘ — 50 years ago. When the base was decommissioned in the late 1960s, the hazardous waste and infrastructure were simply left behind, with the assumption that all trace of the camp would be obliterated by snow, which would entomb the site in ice for eternity. But now atmospheric warming is causing the Greenland Ice Sheet to melt, threatening to expose the hazardous waste entombed within, posing yet another climate-related challenge.
“Two generations ago, people were interring waste in different areas of the world, and now climate change is modifying those sites,” said William Colgan, a climate and glacier scientist at York University and lead author of the new study. “It’s a new breed of climate change challenge we have to think about.”
The Arctic is bearing the brunt of climate change and has experienced more warming than anywhere else on Earth. This new study has revealed that the section of the Greenland Ice Sheet that covers this entombed military base could begin melting towards the end of this century. If this happens, the military camp will once again be exposed, and rather than being encased within the ice for eternity as both the United States and Danish government had assumed, any hazardous waste remaining on site — including chemical, nuclear or biological waste — could be released back into the environment where it would threaten the environmental integrity of surrounding ecosystems.
“When we looked at the climate simulations, they suggested that rather than perpetual snowfall, the site could transition from having a buildup of snow to having primarily melting conditions as early as 2090,” Colgan said. “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.”
What Type of Hazardous Waste Lies Buried Under the Ice?
After analyzing historical US military records, the researchers estimate that Camp Century’s waste dump covers an area measuring 55 hectares — equivalent to roughly 100 rugby fields, and contains a variety of hazardous waste that could potential pose an environmental risk, including:
- Diesel fuel — it is estimated that around 200,000 litres of diesel remains on site — enough fuel to drive a vehicle around the world 80 times
- Wastewater — there is an estimated 240,000 litres of wastewater remaining on site, including sewage
- The researchers speculate that the site may also contain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), toxic contaminants used in construction materials that were typically used in that era, which pose a health risk to humans
- Radioactive coolant used for the nuclear generator
According to Colgan, this hazardous waste poses far more than just a trivial environmental hazard. When, not if, the ice sheet melts, these contaminants could make their way into the ocean, where they have the potential to harm marine ecosystems.
James White, a climatologist from the University of Colorado in Boulder who is not associated with the study, shares Colgan’s sentiments and feels it is unrealistic to assume that waste can be buried under ice forever.
“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,” White said. “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’.”
Who is Responsible for the Environmental Clean-up?
According to Jessica Green, a political scientist from New York University who specializes in international environmental law, in order to prevent future hazardous waste, current international laws clearly outline the responsibilities and liabilities associated with the disposal of hazardous waste. However, when it comes to legacy waste that is already discarded, the laws tend to be a bit more fuzzy. In this case, where the impact of climate change on abandoned waste was not even considered during the construction of the base (climate change was not an issue back then), a legacy of politically ambiguous hazardous waste has been left in its wake. But as this was a joint undertaking between the US and Denmark, who exactly is responsible for the clean-up and environmental remediation at the site? Camp Century was essentially a US military base built on Danish territory (Greenland) which is now effectively self-governed. As such, when this hazardous waste does eventually surface, the issue could become a proverbial political hot potato, with nobody stepping up to take responsibility. This case clearly illustrates the importance of disposing of hazardous waste in a responsible manner, rather than leaving it in-situ in the hope that it will remain buried forever.