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The Arctic Army Testing Site That Climate Change Could Uncover

Engineers once thought snow would always accumulate in Greenland, thus burying, forever, the army bases they abandoned. But now global warming has changed the calculation.

By Francie Diep


The portable nuclear power plant at Camp Century. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In the late 1950s, in the midst of the Cold War, the Army Corps of Engineers had an unusual idea: What if America could shuttle ballistic missiles via tunnels drilled through ice caps in the Arctic? The Arctic, they reasoned, presented the most direct route between the United States and the then-Soviet Union.

To test their idea, the engineers built a camp, called Camp Century, in Greenland that was powered by its own portable nuclear power plant (it could be airlifted piece by piece). Camp Century operated year-round for five years, supporting up to 200 soldiers in an underground facility, and then seasonally for three more. Finally, after the Joint Chiefs of Staff nixed their ballistic underground railroad proposal, the Army Corps of Engineers abandoned Camp Century. They took with them the reaction chamber of their nuclear generator to dispose of; everything else they left behind. By now, the camp’s buildings are likely beneath 36 meters of snow, researchers estimate.

The Army Corps of Engineers believed that snow would always accumulate over Camp Century, thus locking it away forever. But a new modeling study finds that unmitigated global warming could melt the ice cap at Camp Century starting around 2090. That would allow the camp’s buried waste to seep and spread, eventually making it out to sea.

The camp’s long-term fate illustrates the strange and long-ranging consequences climate change will bring to the Arctic.

Based on camp records, the study team estimates the Camp Century site contains 50,000 gallons of diesel fuel; six million gallons of used water, including sewage; polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs; and radioactive waste. The team — which includes engineers, environmental scientists, and geologists from North America and Europe — expect PCBs will be the most troublesome because they were so widely used in Cold War-era army installations in the Arctic. Experiments conducted on lab animals and studies of people who work with PCBs suggest they likely cause cancer and other maladies. Besides Camp Century, the U.S. owns four other abandoned, un-remediated ice sheet bases in that region of Greenland.

Still, there’s no need to act just yet. Camp Century is deeply frozen and may remain so for a few more generations. But the camp’s long-term fate illustrates the strange and long-ranging consequences climate change will bring to the Arctic—and the planet as a whole.

Earlier this week, we wrote about how unusually hot temperatures in Siberia have uncovered the long-buried corpses of reindeer and people who died of anthrax during the turn of the 20th century — and triggered a fresh outbreak. If climate change creates more Siberian heat waves in the future, more such outbreaks could occur.

As Rutgers University climate scientist Jennifer Franciswrote to Pacific Standard: “This is uncharted territory in the human experience, and especially the ecosystem is likely to respond in abrupt ways.”