Over the last century, many glaciers have pulled back farther than humans have ever previously witnessed. While the retreat of glaciers, and changes in the cryosphere more generally (which includes ice sheets and permafrost), can be seen as purely symbolic representations of the unwavering march of climate change, they are shifting geography as they melt and thaw, leaving dangerous implications behind.
Camp Century is only one such instance. Built underneath the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet in 1959 by the the US Army Corps of Engineers as part of Project Iceworm, the project was designed to create a network of mobile nuclear missile launch sites in Greenland. Intended to study the deployment and potential launch of ballistic missiles within the ice sheet, the base was eventually abandoned and decommissioned in 1967.
“Before it shut down it was almost an entire underground city, with bars, theaters and other buildings,” says Garry Clarke, a Professor Emeritus in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of British Columbia. Clarke conducted graduate work at the site in 1965, before it was decommissioned. “Before I got there, the whole thing was powered by nuclear energy. Since the idea of shielding the missiles from detection wasn’t working very well, some took to calling Camp Century the ‘Atomic City.’”
While the base’s nuclear generator was removed as part of the decommissioning, various kinds of waste remain at the base, including sewage, persistent organic pollutants, diesel fuel, and the radiological waste from the removed nuclear generator. At the time, it was expected all of this would be safely buried in the ice sheet, never to see the light of day.