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Climate Change Could Uncover An Abandoned Arctic Nuclear Base

Cleaning up the site could be a complicated task.

Climate change is causing record levels of ice to disappear from the Arctic, and the melt is unearthing something that was supposed to stay buried for centuries — an abandoned U.S. nuclear base.

Camp Century was built in Greenland in 1959 during the peak of the Cold War. The subterranean base held between 85 and 200 soldiers year-round. The base was built under the pretense that it would be a centre for scientific experiments on the icecap and a space to test construction techniques in Arctic conditions.

The base was really part of "Project Iceworm," a top secret U.S. army program that intended to build a network of missile launch sites under the ice sheet.

The camp was essentially a small town under the ice. When abandoned in 1967, the trenches and buildings — including houses, a town store and even a hospital — were left behind, too.

The engineers stationed there also abandoned a nuclear generator that was "minimally" decommissioned, as they assumed it would be "'preserved for eternity' by perpetual snowfall," according to a 2016 study by Geophysical Research Letters. Other than the nuclear reaction chamber, all of the infrastructure and nuclear waste at the site was left intact.

The researchers weren't totally off-base with their belief that the site wouldn't melt. The camp was established on what's known as the "dry snow zone" of the Greenland ice sheet, where almost no surface melting was known to occur at the time.

According to NASA's Earth Science Communications Team, geoscientists in the '60s believed that the climate could only change on a large timescale, over thousands of years. It wasn't until 1979 that it was proven that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would result in significant negative changes to the earth's climate.

Climate change is hitting the Arctic hard. Surface ice melt in Northern Canada grew by 900 per cent between 2005 and 2015, a recent study found, and melting glaciers have begun to release pollutants like DDT and PCBs into the environment.

If the ice melts at Camp Century, it will release an abundance of PCBs as well as other physical, chemical, biological and radiological wastes (including thousands of barrels of diesel) that could eventually be swept to Canada through the same Arctic currents that bring spectacular icebergs to Newfoundland's coast every year.

A restored U.S. Army film gives a tour of Camp Century during the base's construction:

The study from Geophysical Research Letters predicted that by 2090 ice around Camp Century will begin to melt, and it will take nearly another century before the camp is fully unearthed. But meltwater runoff could carry chemical waste into the sea as soon as the ice sheet starts melting.

Since that study was published, scientists found that the Arctic is warming more than twice as fast as the rest of earth. The "Snow, Water, Ice, and Permafrost in the Arctic" report, published in April 2017, significantly increased the projections of how fast global sea-levels will rise, meaning that ice could melt at Camp Century sooner than projected.

Cleaning up the site could also be a complicated task. The U.S. has been cleaning up old radar sites across Northern Canada, but the ownership of Camp Century is a bit less clear. According to the study, "it is unclear whether Denmark was sufficiently consulted regarding the specific decommissioning of Camp Century, and thus whether the abandoned wastes there remain U.S. property."

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