Top-secret US military project hidden under ice sheet will be exposed by climate change
22 February 2018 | Mitigation
At the height of the Cold War, the US prepared for a possible battle with the Soviet Union by using the Greenland ice sheet to bury a network of top-secret mobile nuclear launch sites. The project, code-named Iceworm, saw the secretive site built in 1959 under a treaty between the US and Denmark, with buildings constructed deep below the snow.
More than 200 soldiers lived among what would later be dubbed ”Camp Century” and its three-kilometre network of tunnels, with the site containing living quarters, a shop, hospital and chapel.
In 1967, eight years after being established, the site was abandoned amid fears the ice was not strong enough to support the top secret activities happening beneath.
While vital equipment was removed, parts of the camp’s infrastructure such as old buildings and a railway remained.
Those involved also left grey water and sewage in unlined sumps, in addition to chemical and radioactive material estimated to be buried between 36 and 65 metres deep.
As engineers believed the buildings were built in a dry snow zone — an area where no surface melting occurs — all of the aforementioned materials were left behind under the assumption they would be preserved for eternity by perpetual snowfall.
And this was true for the most part. Well, until Greenland began warming from climate change.
This has now caused a growing problem as these dangerous contaminants now threaten to re-emerge from the ice and could be leaked into the surrounding environment with no plan as to who is responsible.
Associate professor of political science and international studies at Brown University Jeff Colgan recently explored the issue in a paper published in Global Environmental Politics.
“This waste includes tens of thousands of litres of diesel fuel, a substantial but unknown quantity of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and a reportedly small volume of low-level radioactive waste,” he wrote.
“Climate change is now poised to ensure these pollutants are eventually remobilised into
the surface water, creating a future risk that they will spread and enter the food chain in the nearest human settlements.”
Camp Century isn’t the only American military base around that globe that’s threatened by climate change, with a Pentagon report from January this year noting that half of all US bases worldwide could be at risk.
However, Mr Colgan said Camp Century was the most interesting of these cases as it’s a sign of things to come.
“I selected this case not because it creates a particularly devastating environmental hazard but because it could prove to be an indicator of things to come for some of the hundreds of other active or abandoned military sites,” he wrote.
Mr Colgan used the example of the US and Denmark playing political hot potato in terms of
who will be tasked with cleaning up the mess when the inevitable occurs.
“In 2017, Greenland’s prime minister fired the foreign minister, Vittus Qujaukitsoq, when they disagreed about the forceful approach Qujaukitsoq was taking with Denmark and the US about their responsibility for the Iceworm waste,” he wrote.
When Motherboard contacted the US State Department to inquire about Camp Century, it was then referred to the US Department of Defense, with the publication then told to take the query to the government of Denmark.
The Danish foreign ministry said decisions around the clean-up would be made once the science is settled.
“It’s not a high priority. In fact it’s a barely known [issue] in Washington,” Mr Colgan told Motherboard. “The only people who are really agitated [are in] Greenland, and they don’t have a lot of leverage.”