Climate change could expose Cold War-era Arctic military base

The hazardous waste of a Cold War-era military base once thought to be buried forever in the Greenland ice sheet may eventually resurface due to climate change, says a new York University study.

Long-buried hazardous waste at Greenland site may be uncovered by the end of the century or sooner

Researchers recover a shallow ice core at the Camp Century site in 2010. They believe that by the end of the century, the abandoned Cold War-era military base will resurface due to climate change. (William Colgan)

The hazardous waste of a Cold War-era military base once thought to be buried forever in the Greenland ice sheet may eventually resurface due to climate change, says a new York University study.

Camp Century was a U.S. military base built within the Greenland ice sheet in 1959. The top-secret site was used for testing the feasibility of deploying nuclear missiles from the Arctic.

The site is only 400 kilometres away from the Canadian Arctic.

The Camp Century drill sits in the abandoned base, which contains an estimated 200,000 litres of diesel fuel, enough for a car to circle the globe 80 times. (submitted by York University)

In 1967, when the camp was decommissioned, its infrastructure and waste were abandoned because it was believed they would be buried forever under perpetual snowfall.

"It's a new kind of climate change challenge," said William Colgan, a climate and glacier scientist at York University and the study's lead author.

The study, published Thursday in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union, offers insight on what may happen to numerous other abandoned military installations in the Arctic as the climate changes.

According to Colgan, the ice sheet covering the military base will start to melt by the end of the century or sooner.

"Eighty-five years until it starts to melt out definitely is a long ways away, but if we've learned anything from our climate modelling over the last 20 years it's that we generally underestimate the speed and rapidity of climate change," Colgan said.

William Colgan says the waste at Camp Century covers 55 hectares, roughly the size of 100 football fields. (submitted by William Colgan)

As ice melts due to climate change, the camp's infrastructure, as well as any lingering biological, chemical and radioactive waste, could re-enter the environment and potentially disrupt nearby ecosystems.

Camp Century

Today Camp Century is totally buried under six decades of snow. The only landmark that distinguishes the site is a lonely weather station continuing to gather meteorological data.

But under the pancake-flat sheets of snow and ice lies a military base that was a bustling site during the Cold War.

In its heyday, the site included a large ski-way and surface entrances to tunnels that carved kilometres of paths into the underground facility, which stretched over 55 hectares.

The base was like a small town made of prefabricated modular buildings inside the tunnels and included living quarters, a dining hall, a recreation facility and even a small hospital.

Camp Century also housed a nuclear generating plant, backup diesel generators, research facilities and storage for vehicles that would drive from site to site underground.

The most striking element of the camp was a test underground railway that stretched about a half a kilometre.  

"They were testing the concept of deploying nuclear missiles beneath the ice sheet on railway," Colgan said. 

The northeast portal to Camp Century during construction in 1959. (submitted by York University)

Low-level nuclear waste

Colgan and his team took an inventory of the wastes at Camp Century and ran climate model simulations.

The waste at Camp Century covers 55 hectares, roughly the size of 100 football fields. The site contains an estimated 200,000 litres of diesel fuel, enough for a car to circle the globe 80 times, and 240,000 litres of wastewater, including sewage.

Colgan added an unknown volume of low-level radioactive coolant from the nuclear generator is also present at the camp.

"It's very low-level nuclear waste, it's not like old fuel rods or warheads, it's just the coolant that was used in the nuclear reactor."

The northeast portal to Camp Century in 1964 shortly before the base was abandoned. (submitted by York University)

There is little risk associated with this nuclear waste from the camp, Colgan said. However, he said much of the building materials used in the Arctic at the time contained polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), pollutants toxic to human health.

They are likely a bigger threat to the Arctic ecosystem, he said.

"They are very long-lived, they disperse easily and they bio-accumulate easily and there's a lot of research showing that PCBs are quite harmful."

When the ice melts, pollutants in Camp Century could make their way to the ocean and disrupt marine ecosystems, Colgan said.

It's unclear which country would be responsible for the cleanup.

"It's a sticky problem," Colgan said. "It could take several decades to figure out who actually owns the waste."

About the Author

Sima Sahar Zerehi

Sima Sahar Zerehi is a reporter with CBC North. She started her career in journalism with the ethnic press working for a Canadian-based Farsi language newspaper. Her CBC journey began as a regular commentator with CBC radio's Metro Morning. Since then she's worked with CBC in Montreal, Toronto and now Iqaluit.