What lies under the arctic ice?

Much of what lies under the poles’ thick ice is a mystery, but not everything.

As glaciers melt a lot of messy stuff threatens to be exposed, including some 200,000 litres of diesel fuel, 240,000 litres of sewage and waste water, toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)—and an unknown amount of radioactive coolant, left over from the site’s nuclear generator, according to a new study, published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Camp Century was built in 1959, at the height of the Cold War, beneath the surface of the northwestern Greenland ice sheet. There, the US studied deployment of nuclear missiles against Russia.

“It had up to 200 soldiers, called Iceworms, who lived in the ice,” William Colgan, a climate and glacier scientist at Toronto’s York University who is lead author on the new paper, told me. The base was positioned within the ice, not on top of it, so it wouldn’t simply be buried by the relentless snow, he explained.

After it was decommissioned in 1967, the US abandoned pretty much all of the base’s contents along with it, which wasn’t an unusual practice. “It was reasonable to expect it to snow forever,” Colgan explained, adding that Camp Century and other bases were legally established under a treaty between Denmark and the US. “The agreement had an implicit assumption: that it would keep snowing,” he said.

Given what we understand now about climate change and the Arctic, which is warming more rapidly than other parts of the world, it’s apparent these aren’t tombs for much longer.

Camp Century isn’t the only hazardous dump buried under the ice. As Colgan notes, Cold War-era bases are scattered throughout the area.

If you were to visit Camp Century today, it would be all “flat and white,” he said, with no visible trace of what lurks under the surface. (Colgan said he last visited the site in 2010.) That won’t be the case forever. Decades ago, the military buried toxic waste in the ice, and because of climate change, it will soon be back to haunt us.

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