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Melting ice sheet may expose Cold War base, hazardous waste

Construction materials and waste could start seeping into the outside environment as climate change warms the region, revealing the abandoned military base.

By Stephen Feller
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Melting ice sheet may expose Cold War base, hazardous waste
The northeast portal to Camp Century, a U.S. Army base in Greenland, in 1959, during construction. Photo by U.S. Army

TORONTO, Aug. 4 (UPI) -- United States military officials in the 1960s thought it could be thousands of years before an abandoned base in Greenland was again visible without a lot of digging, but that's only because they didn't count on the Greenland Ice Sheet melting so soon.

Global climate change now threatens to reveal the long-abandoned base, potentially exposing the environment there to biological, chemical and radioactive waste that was expected to be buried below snow and ice "forever," say researchers at York University.

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In a study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, researchers lay out the history of Camp Century, built by the the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about 125 miles inland from Greenland's coast and referred to as the "city under the ice."

The Army Corps started building the base in 1959 as part of top secret mission to explore the feasibility of launching nuclear weapons at Russia, if needed, from the area of the North Pole -- the most direct, shortest line of attack.

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While a full plan to create a nuclear base was rejected by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1964, the camp housed between 85 and 200 soldiers researching Greenland and the feasibility of a 2,500-mile tunnel system housing around 600 nuclear weapons. Even without becoming a base for nuclear weapons, the camp was about the size of 100 football fields and powered by a nuclear reactor.

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When the base was abandoned because the top secret reason for its existence had been eliminated, soldiers left behind just under 53,000 gallons of diesel fuel and 63,000 gallons of waste water, including sewage. Polychlorinated biphenyls and an unknown amount of low-level radioactive coolant from the generator also are believed to be there.

The thought was for soldiers to just leave, allowing the base to be buried under snow and ice, never to be seen again.

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"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 who led the new study, in a press release. "It's a new breed of climate change challenge we have to think about."

Colgan said estimates for a snow buildup to shift course to a snow melt could come as early as 2090, making it a waiting game for when Camp Century will re-emerge.

The concern is that, once that happens, chemicals will start seeping into waterways , affecting the environment in unknown ways, though a political battle about how to clean it up is sure to ensue -- and researchers say it is only a matter of time.

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"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," said James White, a climate scientist at the University of Colorado who was not involved with the study. "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.'"

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