They thought the frozen earth would keep it safely hidden. They were wrong
As climate change warms the Earth, melting ice is uncovering troves of cultural treasures and dangers once thought to be lost forever—from mummified bodies and ancient coins to anthrax-infected reindeer carcasses. Now, scientists have identified what might just be the most surreal thing to emerge from the ice: the remnants of a covert U.S. Army base teeming with radioactive waste, abandoned decades ago in northwestern Greenland.
Climate change could uncover the toxic and radioactive waste left behind at Camp Century as early as 2090, reports a new study published yesterday in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. The 115 feet of snow and ice now covering the Cold War-era base is already melting faster than it can be replaced, a prospect the military likely hadn’t dreamed of at the time. The study’s authors warn that the soon-to-be-uncovered waste could become a political minefield and foreshadow future international conflicts as climate change reshapes Earth.
When the ice melts, an estimated 9,200 tons of physical materials and 53,000 gallons of diesel fuel could be exposed and carried toward the ocean by meltwater. Other waste at the site includes small amounts of radioactive coolant water from Camp Century’s nuclear power plant, and carcinogenic toxins used in paints and fluids called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs are already found in high levels in the Arctic, after being released into oceans in urban waste and carried there by wind and ocean currents.
Camp Century was founded nearly 60 years ago as a model of new kind of Arctic base. Just 800 miles from the North Pole, the base was built in large trenches buried underneath ice and snow to protect the base and its personnel from temperatures that could reach -70 degrees F and wind gusts up to 125 miles per hour. Camp Century included its own nuclear power plant, scientific labs, a library and even a chapel and barbershop, according to an overview of the base written by historian Frank Leskovitz.
This “city under the ice” was no secret; Walter Cronkite visited it in 1961. But its true purpose—to house nuclear weapons—was. In reality, Camp Century was designed as a cover operation to house workers and equipment for what the military had designated “Project Iceworm.” Even Danish authorities had no idea what was really going on in their territory.