Climate change could release Cold War-era toxic waste

Toxic waste housed at an abandoned Cold War-era US military base in Greenland may soon be released into the nearby ecosystem as climate change causes the ice entrapping those hazardous chemicals to melt, researchers reported recently in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

In the new study, William Colgan, a climate and glacier scientist at York University in Toronto, and his colleagues wrote that warming conditions in the Arctic are causing part of the Greenland Ice Sheet to melt, including the section covering the abandoned military base called Camp Century.

According to Live Science and Scientific American, Camp Century was a 136 acre (0.55 square km) used in part as the site of secret tests evaluating the feasibility of deploying nuclear weapons during the Cold War. Once it was decommissioned in 1967, the infrastructure and the hazardous materials it contained were abandoned, to be entombed forever beneath the ice sheet– Or so the US military thought.

Camp Century during construction in 1959. (Credit: US Army)

Camp Century during construction in 1959. (Credit: US Army)

Colgan and his colleagues  believe climate change is causing the ice covering the base to slowly melt, and suggest that before the end of the century the toxic waste could be uncovered, posing a serious threat to the surrounding ecosystems.

“Two generations ago, people were interring waste in different areas of the world,” Colgan, who led a team of researchers from the US, Switzerland, and Denmark, said Thursday in a statement, “and now climate change is modifying those sites. It’s a new breed of climate change challenge we have to think about.”

Hazardous waste could begin spreading within the next 75 years

As part of their research, the study authors took an inventory of the waste materials left behind at Camp Century when it was decommissioned and found that about 53,000 gallons (200,000 liters) of diesel fuel and 63,000 gallons (240,000 liters) of wastewater, including some raw sewage, are still on the site, along with an unknown amount of low-level radioactive coolant.

They also analyzed historical US military documents to determine the location and the depths of the waste materials, and measured how much the ice sheet covering it had shifted during the past several decades, according to Live Science. They found that the waste covered an area of close to the size of 100 football fields, then conducted climate models to see what happens next.

“When we looked at the climate simulations, they suggested that rather than perpetual snowfall, the site could transition from having a buildup of snow to having primarily melting conditions as early as 2090,” Colgan said. “Once the site transitions from net snowfall to net melt, it’s only a matter of time before the wastes melt out; it becomes irreversible.”

Since polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), toxic chemicals that were at one time used regularly in electrical equipment, are among the waste materials at the Camp Century site, that would be bad news for the surrounding environment. PCBs, the researchers explained, can damage the immune and reproductive systems as animals, and have also been linked to cancer in humans.

“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. This stuff was going to come out anyway,” explained James White, a climate scientist at the University of Colorado-Boulder who was not involved in the new study.

“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,’” he added. In fact, Colgan’s team found that unless climate change slows, the ice sheet covering Camp Century could start to melt within the next 75 years. While it takes much longer for the base itself to become exposed, meltwater could flow through structures there, collecting and transporting toxic waste as it flows.

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Image credit: Thinkstock

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