The AGUs Eos publication recently published an interesting article, about how a warming climate could unearth – or rather: unice – some cold war era military installations in Greenland, including some toxic and nuclear waste.

The short version of the what and why is, that the US Army built Camp Century in 1959, officially for general research purposes but unofficially to research the feasibility of using the Greenland ice sheet as a “base” to get nuclear missiles closer to the Soviet Union. This meant building a set of tunnels (though only about 10 m below the ice) housing about 200 men and supplying it with energy via a nuclear reactor. From an engineering standpoint, this was certainly a fantastic project. For a nice overview over the technology involved, this article (including some Hoth jokes) and this film on youtube are probably a good start. Just be careful, the internet loves weird cold war projects! You can easily loose a few hours and/or end up at weird conspiracy sites…

As fantastic as the project was, it still had to be abandoned in 1966, due to the moving ice. Unfortunately, the assumption was that the structure would be “preserved for eternity” (Clark et al., 1962, via Colgan et al., 2016), so the only cleanup done was the removal of the reactor itself.

Everything else was left behind, including – according to Colgan et al., 2016 – a lot of diesel and “nontrivial” amounts of PCBs and radiological waste. But, as you probably expected by now, it turns out that “eternity” nowadays works different than it did in the 60ies so that there is a high probability that the melting Greenland ice sheet will mobilize these pollutants in the not too far future.

So, why does this matter? After all, it is a relatively small amount of waste, far away from anyone possibly affected and we have much bigger issues to worry about when Greenland is melting.

This is all true, but I think it nicely illustrates a few points that are important when talking about climate change and safely storing something for eternity:

  • As said, this is a rather small issue, compared to large scale phenomena such as rising sea level. But locally, it can become the dominating issue.
  • While this is a very outlandish fringe case, there probably are quite a few more such fringe – and not so fringe – cases worldwide, possibly causing huge local problems, which adds another dimension to climate change impact assessments.
  • Personally, having visited the Swiss nagras underground laboratories and having done some classes on the German Asse nuclear waste repository, I’m quite interested in the topic of nuclear waste. And since nuclear energy is often touted as a possible “solution” for climate change, we should follow that topic, no matter if we are for or against it. And especially in the case of the Asse, papers from the 60ies, where researchers just as us are guaranteeing that they are absolutely certain that stuff will be safe forever, only to be proven wrong just 30 years later are very familiar to me. While I think that we are all much better aware of this possibility nowadays (no matter if on the topic of climate change or nuclear waste), it still is important to occasionally be reminded of this, to make sure that we know that our work will often have to face the test of time.

The ironic part of the whole story: According to this random site about the project, Camp Century might even have played an important role in ice core drilling and the things we learned about climate change from them.

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