Fifty years ago, the US Army abandoned a secretive nuclear facility built 40 feet below a Greenland ice sheet, Science reports. It left radioactive water, diesel fuel, human waste, and possibly PCBs buried with Camp Century—it believed forever. "The phrase they used was that the waste would be preserved for eternity by perpetually accumulating snow," physical geographer William Colgan tells NPR. Instead, Colgan's research—published Thursday in Geophysical Research Letters—says those pollutants could start escaping by the end of the century thanks to global warming. He concludes the ice sheet could start losing more ice than it gains by 2090. When that happens, it "would guarantee the eventual remobilization of physical, chemical, biological, and radiological wastes."
Even though it would likely take another 100 years or so for Camp Century to be completely exposed, problems could start much earlier. If cracks form in the ice, water could run down to the buried pollutants—including radioactive cooling water from the base's old nuclear reactor—and then carry them into the ocean. It's unclear who owns the waste, as the base was built under a Danish-US treaty, and who will need to deal with the fallout in the future. Interesting aside: Camp Century was built in 1959 as a research base. But unbeknownst to the public, the Army was using it for Project Iceworm— massive railway tunnels under the ice sheet that would be used to send underground nuclear missiles at the Soviet Union. It didn't work. (Read more Greenland stories.)