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The Abandoned Ice Sheet Base at Camp Century, Greenland, in a Warming Climate

August 2016

William Colgan, Horst Machguth, Mike MacFerrin, Jeff D. Colgan, Dirk van As, Joseph A. MacGregor


As the Cold War began and the threat of nuclear attack became ever more real, the United States and the Kingdom of Denmark agreed that Greenland would host three American airbases to counter the nuclear threat from the Soviet Union. Along with these airbases came a plan to create a ballistic missile base beneath Greenland’s ice sheets. Powered by a portable nuclear generator Camp Century was built to host up to 200 soldiers, provide year round accommodation, and upon expansion would be capable of storing up to 600 ballistic missiles. The plans for the base were short lived. Built in 1959 Camp Century was abandoned in 1967 after 8 short years. When the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) abandoned the base little was done to dispose of waste materials. The ACE believed that accumulating snowfall and frigid temperatures would preserve the base and the waste left along with it. Upon its abandonment only the reaction chamber of the nuclear generator was taken. 9,200 tons of physical waste (building infrastructure), 200,000 liters of diesel fuel, 24,000,000 liters of biological waste, and 1,200,000,000 Bq (unit of radioactivity) of radioactive material were left at Camp Century. Aside from diesel fuel that was stored in rigid containers, which have most likely been compromised, liquid waste was stored in unlined sumps. Experts believe that the continued degradation of ice sheets will create conditions where this liquid waste will be able to permeate deeper into the ice, possibly into aquifers within the ice sheet, and even the sea.

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Policy Implications

If the waste left at Camp Century were to permeate deeper into the ice shelf it could have grave environmental consequences. Not only would it contaminate a large swath of centuries old ice that holds a plethora of scientific data, it would also pose the risk of making its way out to sea and contaminating a diverse ecosystem. As the United States, Canada, and Denmark look to exploit the resources around Greenland, estimated to be worth tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars, any pollution coming from Camp Century could pose a risk to development. Camp Century is also a key example as to what we can expect to see as climate change causes ice sheets to shrink and ocean levels to rise. Rising ocean levels will engulf abandoned and derelict factories, refineries, waste dumps, and other industrial infrastructure close to the sea. The remobilization of waste at sites such as Camp Century is an occurrence that will become more widespread as a result of climate change. Policymakers will have to work at both a national and international level to combat climate change and to shore up sites that pose a risk to the environment.

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