As first reported by Brown University, researchers recently published a study that indicates that climate change is poised to release hazardous wastes at an abandoned United States military base in Greenland.

The work has led Vittus Qujaukitsoq, Greenland’s minister of industry, labor, and trade and foreign affairs, to publicly demand that Denmark prepare to clean up the base and compensate residents who live near it. In his statement, Qujaukitsoq refers to the study, which appears in Geophysical Research Letters.

Camp Century, Greenland, circa 1959
Camp Century, Greenland, circa 1959
According to the October 13th edition of the Danish newspaper Berlingske, Qujaukitsoq also demanded renegotiation of the Danish-American defense agreement in Greenland. Søren Espersen, member of Danish parliament and chairman of Denmark’s foreign policy committee, strongly objected to this demand, the newspaper reports.

In the study, Jeff Colgan, associate professor of political science and international and public affairs at Brown University’s Watson Institute, and colleagues discuss both the historic and climatic context of the base and anticipated the potential for political acrimony.

“Our study highlights that Camp Century now possesses unanticipated political significance in light of anthropogenic climate change,” the researchers write. “The potential remobilization of wastes that were previously regarded as properly sequestered, or preserved for eternity is an instance, possibly the first, of a potentially new pathway to political dispute associated with climate change.”

During the Cold War, the US government and Denmark signed a treaty to jointly defend Greenland, a Danish territory, from Soviet attack, Colgan says. Camp Century was established in Greenland in 1959 and was intended “to test the feasibility of building nuclear missile launch sites close enough to reach the Soviet Union,” according to an article in New Security Beat by Colgan and his coauthor William Colgan of York University in Ontario. Camp Century shuttered after eight years, in 1967.

“The base was abandoned with minimal decommissioning,” the researchers write in the Geophysical Research Letters study, “as engineering design of the era assumed that the base would be ‘preserved for eternity’ by perpetual snowfall.” According to the study, the Army Corps of Engineers removed the base’s nuclear reactor core but left the camp’s infrastructure and all other waste behind.

According to the study, waste left at the site includes diesel fuel, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), biological waste including grey water and sewage in unlined sumps, and radiological waste in the form of coolant for the portable nuclear generator at the base.

Since the camp was decommissioned, Jeff Colgan says, “falling snow has buried the camp roughly 115 feet further underneath the ice.” Climatic projections, however, “predict increased surface melting in northwestern Greenland through 2100,” according to the study.

Colgan and Colgan point out that climate change has warmed the Arctic more than any other region on Earth. They and their coauthors predict that the waste, which they found covers 136 acres, could begin to reemerge in 2090.

“The PCBs are likely the biggest concern for animal and human health, if they are remobilized into surface waters,” according to Colgan and Colgan, who add that the pollutants could reach the ocean, disrupt marine ecosystems, and accumulate in the food chain.

“It is very understandable that Greenland’s government wants clarity on who is responsible for the pollution and whether they will accept the eventual costs of environmental remediation,” Jeff Colgan says, but “as we emphasized in the study, there is no environmental risk in the near-term, and likely the pollution will stay buried in the ice for several decades at least.

“Right now, what’s needed is monitoring and research to assess if and when clean-up actions are necessary.”