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17 August 2016

Greenland’s Melting Ice Sheet Threatens to Expose Cold War Toxins

The melting of our planet’s ice sheets is a massive problem in and of itself, threatening to devastate habitats, raise sea levels, destroy homes and straight up wipe out some of the worst affected species. Now, due to human activity (isn’t it always?), experts are becoming increasingly wary of what else may be lurking beneath the snow, and for good reason.

Deep under the ice of Greenland, an extensive research base still sits intact, housing a plethora of hazardous chemicals and radioactive waste. With Greenland’s ice sheet losing an estimated 8,000 tonnes per second, those chemicals could end up in our oceans by the end of the century.

Camp Century before its eventual closure
The base, known as Camp Century, is most widely recognised as a centre of scientific research, famed for being the site where the first deep ice core was drilled. These cores help scientists to unravel the mystery of past climates. Its other intended purpose however, is rather more sinister.

The base was actually built in 1959 in order to house Project Iceworm, an initiative that intended to place long-range ballistic missiles and nuclear weaponry within striking distance of Russia, as tensions rose during the cold war. When the project was scrapped in 1967, only the nuclear reactor itself was removed; all other waste, bi-products and hazardous materials were left inside, while personnel simply locked up and left.

They did so under the assumption that it would continue to snow in the area indefinitely, just as it did during the time when the base was active. This accumulated snowfall would then be compacted, adding to the ice sheet and burying any harmful substances deeper still. That may well have worked out, before global warming reared its ugly head; now, with temperatures on the rise, the melting rate looks set to exceed the rate of accumulation. When this reaches tipping point, it becomes simply a matter of time before the site is exposed, and meltwater carries alarming levels of toxins directly into the ocean. These substances include diesel fuel, radioactive coolant and large quantities of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Experts are most concerned about the PCBs, as these dangerous, now-banned chemicals do not break down over time, and can cause significant harm upon exposure.

In terms of clean-up, there’s not a lot we can do for now. The location currently shows little-to-no signs of its former use, with all evidence hidden beneath a thick layer of ice. Leading experts have stated that attempting to remedy the situation is highly impractical, if not impossible, until the ice diminishes further, bringing the facility closer to the surface.


On the subject of clean-up, this raises an interesting point. The base was established by the U.S army with permission from the Danish government, which had control of Greenland at the time. Now that Greenland is self-governed, it has raised questions concerning who the responsibility of remediation falls to. In my mind, it should be the responsibility of those who established the base and left these chemicals behind in the first place, but international politics is far from a simple game and I fear that Greenland may be left to bear the brunt.


Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.