Melting Ice In Greenland Could Expose Serious Pollutants From Buried Army Base : The Two-Way Camp Century was a research station and test site for deploying nuclear missiles before it was abandoned under the ice in the '60s. Scientists say pollutants left behind may spread as the ice melts.
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Melting Ice In Greenland Could Expose Serious Pollutants From Buried Army Base

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Melting Ice In Greenland Could Expose Serious Pollutants From Buried Army Base

Melting Ice In Greenland Could Expose Serious Pollutants From Buried Army Base

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Buried below the ice sheet that covers most of Greenland, there is an abandoned U.S. Army Base. Camp Century had trucks and tunnels - even a nuclear reactor. It was advertised as a research station and was also a test site for deploying nuclear missiles. The camp was abandoned almost 50 years ago, buried under snow and ice. But as NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, serious pollutants were very likely left behind. And the ice is melting.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAMP CENTURY")

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built Camp Century in 1959, an Army film touted it as an engineering marvel, a cavernous home for up to 200 people.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAMP CENTURY")

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: On the top of the world, below the surface of a giant ice cap, a city is buried. Today on the island of Greenland, as part of man's continuing efforts to master the secrets of survival in the Arctic, the United States Army has established an unprecedented, nuclear-powered arctic research center.

JOYCE: Yes, there was research going on. But there were also railways running along huge tunnels. The secret plan, called Project Ice Worm, was to test the idea of putting nuclear missiles on tracks below the ice and aiming them at the Soviet Union. But the ice sheet began shifting. The tunnels wouldn't last. So the army abandoned it in 1967. Ice and snow continued to bury it even deeper. Five years ago, an Arctic researcher in Greenland heard stories about the camp.

WILLIAM COLGAN: When you go to this site nowadays, it's just flat white - looks like everywhere else on the ice sheet. And it's only when you start to understand what lies beneath the site that it takes on a special significance.

JOYCE: William Colgan is a physical geographer at York University in Canada. He found records that described what was left behind there, like radioactive cooling water from that reactor. The camp also stored lots of diesel fuel. There were very likely PCBs, toxic compounds found in electrical equipment. There's no record of how much was buried. Colgan says the Army figured the waste would be entombed forever.

COLGAN: They thought it would snow in perpetuity. And the phrase they used was that the waste would be preserved for eternity by perpetually accumulating snow.

JOYCE: And in 1967, that was a good bet - except, the climate has changed. It's getting warmer. The Greenland ice sheet is melting. Colgan and a team of researchers estimated how soon the abandoned camp and its wastes might be uncovered. Their findings are in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

COLGAN: So our study is saying, well, we might not be looking at preservation for eternity any longer. It might be more like preservation for the next century or so.

JOYCE: Climate models say the camp could be uncovered by the end of this century. Now, that's a worst-case scenario. But other things are happening that could spread that waste sooner.

JENNIFER MERCER: As you continue to have longer warm periods, we will definitely start to see more cracks on the Greenland ice sheet.

JOYCE: Jennifer Mercer is an operations manager for scientific teams working on the ice sheet. Water from melting snow will find those cracks and crevasses. Mercer says it could percolate down to the camp and then carry contamination to the ocean. It's unclear who owns this waste. The camp was set up under a treaty between the U.S. and Denmark, which had jurisdiction over Greenland. Jessica Green, an environmental policy expert at New York University, says it's a legal dilemma.

JESSICA GREEN: Climate change is raising a lot of questions about who is responsible for what.

JOYCE: As the climate changes, litigation won't be far behind. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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