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Cold War-era waste is yet another challenge for the times of climate change

Posted August 6, 2016

Climate change poses some serious environmental challenges. It may drive some species to extinction, damage our farming practices, and raise sea levels and so on. However, some of potential dangers are a bit of a different nature – a new study from the York University in Canada and the University of Zurich of Switzerland has revealed that global warming can release frozen Cold War-era waste, currently hidden beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet.

“Camp Century” under construction. Image credit: US Army,

“Camp Century” under construction. Image credit: US Army,

There is a military camp, called “Camp Century”, which was abandoned 1960s. It is believed that as soldiers were leaving the base, they left some dangerous waste under the thick layer of ice, because the original purpose of the camp was to test the feasibility of nuclear missile launch sites in the Arctic. Although it seems to be a bad idea, a thick layer of ice, which does not obey to seasonal changes, is actually a safe place for such waste. However, climate warming now is changing this assumption. Now scientists predict that this layer of ice may melt before the end of this century, uncovering hazardous biological, chemical, and radioactive wastes, which could damage local ecosystems.

Of course, at its time “Camp Century” was considered to be top secret. However, now scientists were able to get historical U.S. army engineering documents, which helped them to determine what and how deep was buried in this site. Without these historic sources it would be impossible as this camp now is 35 meters beneath the ice and covers 55 hectares. What waste could be hiding there? How about 200,000 litters of diesel fuel and polychlorinated biphenyls, which were used for the construction of the site? Furthermore, people were living there from 1959 to 1967, so there are also 240,000 litters of waste water. And, of course, this being a nuclear site, there should be an unknown volume of low-level radioactive coolant.

Scientists ran some simulations and found that it is not a permanent grave for this waste. They think site will begin to melt at around 2090. But what can we do? Scientists do not suggest we should dug out this waste now – we should wait until ice melts to a level, where we can reach “Camp Century” in a cost-effective way. William Colgan, lead author of the study, noted: “Two generations ago, people were interring waste in different areas of the world, and now climate change is altering those sites. It’s a new breed of political challenge we have to think about”.

Cold War era has ended more than 26 years ago. All the suddenly unneeded weapons were disposed. Now for generations to come we will have to deal with the consequences of short-term thinking.

Source: UZH

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