A radioactive Cold War military base will soon emerge from Greenland's melting ice What secrets do those lonely ice sheets hold? (Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)
A radioactive Cold War military base will soon emerge from Greenland's melting ice
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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 study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. The 115 feet of snow and ice now covering the Cold War-era base is 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 minus-70 degrees 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.  The newscaster Walter Cronkite visited it in 1961. But its true purpose was, and that was to house nuclear weapons. 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.
 
"It sounded so farfetched that I didn't know whether to believe him," says international policy expert Jeff Colgan, of his reaction upon being approached by a glaciologist at York University to coauthor a study on the future of Camp Century's remains.
 
In 1959, as the Cold War arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union reached a fever pitch, the U.S. military sought a way to secretly store nuclear weapons underneath Greenland's ice sheet to launch over the Arctic Circle in the case the war heated up. The Army envisioned an underground highway of tunnels stretching across more than 52,000 square miles of Greenland's ice sheet. In case of an attack, up to 600 specially designed nuclear missiles would travel through these tunnels to launch points across the island.
 
However, even the U.S. military couldn't change the course of vast sheets of moving ice. Despite efforts to maintain the underground tunnels, Greenland's continuously shifting ice sheet forced the Army to abandon the base in 1966. It was inconceivable that the 115 feet of snow now covering Camp Century could one day melt away, says William Colgan, the glaciologist who approached Jeff Colgan (no relation, amazingly). The base was forgotten for decades, until the Danish government uncovered evidence of the true nature of Camp Century in 1995.
 
William Colgan stumbled into this arena through an "unusual route." During its operation, scientists based at Camp Century drilled multiple cores into Greenland's ice sheet, including one to a depth of more than 4,500 feet. For climate scientists, these kinds of ice cores have become a valuable proxy for reconstructing the Earth's past climates. William Colgan was studying the Camp Century cores, which cover 13,000 years of climate data, when he heard references to the "surreal stuff" being done at these bases.
 
Given the controversial history of the base, it came as little surprise that any research into the remains of Camp Century would be a delicate matter at best. When NATO and the Danish government declined to fund the research, William Colgan says, he and a group of young researchers were forced to put together their study as an "evening and weekends project."
 
One unexpected effect of climate change, it seems, is that nations can no longer sweep their problems under the rug, even if that rug is Greenland. While the amount of PCBs and radioactive waste that Camp Century will release is small compared to what already exists in the Arctic, the political ramifications of that pollution could be huge. As William Colgan puts it: "We've gone from 'eternity' to 'we really need to start thinking about this.'"

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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why were nuclear weapons stored at Camp Century?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (10)
  • kaileew-ste
    10/06/2016 - 01:31 p.m.

    Scientists have identified the remnants of a U.S. Army base teeming with radioactive waist. Climate change could uncover the toxic and radioactive waist left behind at Camp Century as early as 2090. One unexpected effect of climate change is that nations can no longer ignore their problems.

  • jacklynt-ste
    10/07/2016 - 08:19 a.m.

    I think that the ice melting could potentially be dangerous from exposing radioactive waste. Also, having the climate change causing this melting could be dangerous in general. The radioactive base that we thought was underground and did not have to think about is now coming out quickly and there is no way to stop the ice from moving.

  • monicas-ste
    10/07/2016 - 10:09 a.m.

    This is very exciting. It's so cool to learn more about the history. It's very interesting.

  • irisp-ste
    10/11/2016 - 01:52 p.m.

    Nuclear weapons were stored at Camp Century so they could be kept far away secretly during the Cold War. The military base kept the nukes there in case of the Soviets threatening to attack the US or use their own nuclear weapons. The tunnels designed there gave the military the option to launch the weapons and have them hit the Soviets exactly where it needed to.

  • peytonw-cel
    10/12/2016 - 10:35 a.m.

    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. There is now a lot of radioactivity. This place was made for this type of stuff.

  • zakrym-ste
    10/14/2016 - 10:51 a.m.

    thats pretty cool. it would be cool to find frozen bodies in there. i bet the supplies left over would not work.

  • noahr-ste
    10/14/2016 - 01:06 p.m.

    The problem with this is the radio activity there can be very harmful. It worries me that the base was not there just for the WWII reasons. It seems like it might have been there way longer then what were being told. Also why would we even put a base in Greenland.

  • jacobh2-lam
    10/28/2016 - 08:48 a.m.

    I find it interesting that climate change discovered an American base in Greenland and I think that even though the radioactive waste will not do much harm to the allready polluted Arctic waters we should try and stop it so we can try and save it from becoming more polluted.

  • ajc-man
    11/03/2016 - 11:15 a.m.

    I think that the military stored the nuclear weapons at Camp Century because if the US was attacked by the Soviet Union the US would be able to retaliate by launching its secret missiles from Greenland.

  • lizziec-lam
    11/23/2016 - 11:57 a.m.

    The article says "Climate change could uncover the toxic and radioactive waste left behind at Camp Century as early as 2090..." But that's still about 70 years. With advancing technology we should be able to find a way to fix this.

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