Staff Picks: Toxic City Under the Ice
In 1959, the United States built an unusual military base under the surface of the Greenland ice Sheet. Camp Century was a hub for scientific research, but it also doubled as a top-secret site for testing the feasibility of deploying nuclear missiles from the Arctic. When Camp Century was decommissioned in 1967, its infrastructure and waste were abandoned under the assumption they would be forever entombed beneath the colossal sheet of ice.
But climate change has warmed the Arctic more than any other region on Earth, and parts of the Greenland Ice Sheet are melting faster than snow can accumulate. What will happen in the coming decades if the melting ice exposes the biological, chemical, and radioactive waste left behind at Camp Century?
In this episode, University of Colorado Boulder glaciologist Mike MacFerrin recounts Camp Century’s intriguing history and its role in the Cold War. He discusses the potential hazard Camp Century’s waste poses to the environment and surrounding communities and examines what, if anything, should be done about it now.
This episode was produced and mixed by Lauren Lipuma and Shane M Hanlon.
Shane Hanlon: Hi Nanci.
Nanci Bompey: Hey Shane.
Shane Hanlon: Hi Lauren.
Lauren Lipuma: Hey Shane.
Shane Hanlon: Oh this is gonna be fun. All right, we’re talking about James Bond.
Nanci Bompey: James Bond.
Lauren Lipuma: I love James Bond.
Shane Hanlon: Can we name all the people who have played James Bond?
Lauren Lipuma: I think so.
Nanci Bompey: Sean Connery.
Lauren Lipuma: Yeah
Nanci Bompey: Obvious, obs.
Lauren Lipuma: Timothy Dalton.
Nanci Bompey: What!
Shane Hanlon: Yeah there’s a lot of older ones.
Lauren Lipuma: Yeah.
Nanci Bompey: Pierce Brosnan.
Shane Hanlon: Brosnan, sure.
Lauren Lipuma: Okay.
Nanci Bompey: The new guy.
Shane Hanlon: Danielle Craig.
Lauren Lipuma: Danielle Craig. Roger Moore.
Shane Hanlon: Roger Moore.
Nanci Bompey: Oh, Roger Moore. Yeah, yeah, yeah. My sister dated a guy named Roger Moore.
Shane Hanlon: Oh, [00:00:30] look at that.
Lauren Lipuma: I knew a guy named … nevermind I forgot what I was gonna say.
Shane Hanlon: Okay, three of five. Are there more than five? If there are I can’t …
Lauren Lipuma: There’s seven.
Shane Hanlon: There’s seven?
Nanci Bompey: What?
Lauren Lipuma: Yeah, there’s seven.
Shane Hanlon: All right, we’re gonna have to Google that later. Okay, of the five we can think of, who’s your favorite James Bond character. Or, James Bond actor.
Nanci Bompey: James Bond actor?
Lauren Lipuma: Definitely Daniel Craig.
Nanci Bompey: Yeah.
Shane Hanlon: Yeah?
Lauren Lipuma: Absolutely.
Nanci Bompey: I like [inaudible 00:00:51] Sean Connery, I mean …
Shane Hanlon: Well that’s the thing, they’re very different, right?
Nanci Bompey: Yeah.
Lauren Lipuma: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Shane Hanlon: So, Daniel Craig is much more in your face, aggressive, broody or whatever, [00:01:00] and Sean Connery was the very classic gentleman.
Lauren Lipuma: Debonair.
Shane Hanlon: Right, right.
Lauren Lipuma: Yes.
Shane Hanlon: I think I gotta go with Daniel Craig too.
Nanci Bompey: Wow, we agree.
Lauren Lipuma: Although Roger Moore is a close second.
Shane Hanlon: I know.
Lauren Lipuma: It’s just so 80’s, the ones he was in.
Shane Hanlon: I’m very much looking forward to …
Nanci Bompey: So not Pierce?
Lauren Lipuma: No, Pierce ….
Shane Hanlon: Pierce was good.
Lauren Lipuma: I just didn’t see Pierce as the good action, classical action, hero.
Nanci Bompey: Yeah.
Lauren Lipuma: He seemed too delicate for me.
Shane Hanlon: I’m looking forward to the … hate mail’s a strong word, but the [00:01:30] replies we get on this. Just like, “Really?”
Nanci Bompey: Bring it on, bring it on.
Lauren Lipuma: Hope Pierce Brosnan doesn’t hear it.
Shane Hanlon: Oh, I’m ready.
Welcome to the American Geophysical Union’s podcast about the scientists and the methods behind the science. These are the stories you won’t read in the manuscript or hear in a lecture. I’m Shane Hanlon.
Nanci Bompey: And I’m Nanci Bompey.
Lauren Lipuma: And I’m Lauren Lipuma.
Shane Hanlon: Ooh, hi Lauren. And this is Third Pod From the Sun, Centennial Edition.
Okay, so we found out who the other James Bond actors are. Who [00:02:00] is it?
Lauren Lipuma: David Niven and George Lazenby.
Nanci Bompey: I don’t know who they are.
Lauren Lipuma: Me neither.
Nanci Bompey: Oh, okay.
Shane Hanlon: No. All right.
Nanci Bompey: But, we’re not here to talk about James Bond anyway. We actually have [inaudible 00:02:09].
Lauren Lipuma: But our story is kind of like a James Bond movie and that’s why we are talking about James Bond.
Nanci Bompey: How? Who is it? What is it?
Lauren Lipuma: Well, it’s about a secret U.S military base built in 1959.
Nanci Bompey: Ooh. And how is that like a James Bond movie exactly?
Lauren Lipuma: Well, we’re gonna hear today from Mike MacFerrin who’s gonna tell us the story. It’s about [00:02:30] this base called Camp Century and let’s say it’s a top secret project involving nuclear weapons. There’s soldiers living under the Greenland ice sheet and there’s frozen poop.
Nanci Bompey: Definitely James Bond.
Shane Hanlon: The frozen poop is James Bond?
Nanci Bompey: The whole thing. Yeah, Austin Powers.
Shane Hanlon: Or more like Austin Powers.
Lauren Lipuma: Yeah.
Shane Hanlon: Let’s go with that. And just a reminder that this is part of our staff picks series. This episode is from last year. We’re really enjoyed it and we hope you do too!
Mike MacFerrin: My name is Michael MacFerrin. I am a research glaciologist [00:03:00] at the University of Colorado Boulder. I study primarily the Greenland Ice Sheet. So, we study melt, and runoff, and snow fall and the various ways that Greenland’s changing right now in a changing climate.
Lauren Lipuma: So, I guess couple of years ago you were involved … you probably are still involved in this study that looks specifically at a camp build by the U.S in Greenland back in the 50’s. So, start to tell us a little bit about the background of that.
Mike MacFerrin: Sure. During the Cold War, the U.S [00:03:30] and Denmark put a treaty together where the U.S could have military installations in Greenland and in turn would protect Greenland and Denmark under the U.S nuclear umbrella. So, if Greenland or Denmark was attacked, the U.S would come forth to protect them. And this is sort of the broad idea of NATO, the North American Treaty Organizations, that these countries linked together to protect each other.
So, the U.S did put [00:04:00] numerous military installations on the ice. Both on the coast of Greenland but then also in the interior. There were several radar stations, there were several camps on the ice, and the largest of these installations was a camp in far Northwest Greenland called Camp Century.
Speaker 5: This is the story of Camp Century. The city under ice.
Mike MacFerrin: And Camp Century was kind of unique, it was not a base on the surface [00:04:30] of the ice as all the rest were. This one was meant to be more hidden. It was a large base, but what they did is they dug large 30 foot deep trenches in the snow, and then covered them roofs, and then buried it again so that you had these tunnels near the surface that extended for kilometers. They dug tens of kilometers of these tunnels.
Speaker 5: Plans for the camp had been developed months in advance. The basic concept was simple. [00:05:00] A system of 23 trenches would be dug into the ice cap and then covered with steel arches and snow. Branching off the main communication trench would be a series of lateral trenches housing complete research, laboratory, and test facilities.
Modern living quarters and recreation areas and a …[crosstalk 00:05:24]
Mike MacFerrin: The base itself was on the order of a kilometer wide, a half mile.
Lauren Lipuma: So, [00:05:30] what was kind of the purpose of this base? Why did they go to all this trouble of digging tunnels under this massive ice sheet?
Mike MacFerrin: Sure. That’s an interesting thing about the point of why was Camp Century there. The thing is that the public knew then, and extensively now, about that it was there for as a scientific research base. They were there to discover how to live, and work, and fight in the cold polar environment.
Speaker 5: In this remote setting, [00:06:00] less than 800 miles from the North Pole, Camp Century is a symbol of man’s unceasing struggle to conquer his environment. To increase his ability to live, and fight if necessary, under polar conditions.
Mike MacFerrin: They were doing engineering techniques, research on construction and polar environments. And they did, actually, scientific research as well. The first core that was ever drilled through the ice to the bed of the ice sheet was at Camp Century.
Lauren Lipuma: Wow.
Mike MacFerrin: In 1963. It’s still the Camp [00:06:30] Century core and it’s still referred to, to this day. They’ve since drilled numerous others. So, they did a lot of valuable science on Greenland. We learned a lot about how ice sheets work from that and other expeditions around from the U.S military during the Cold War era.
And that was sort if the extent to which the public knew. I mean they would also monitor, they had radar stations they’d be monitoring for any planes or missiles that might come over the poles form [00:07:00] Russia because Greenland is … especially North Greenland, is far closer to Russia than in any of the rest of the U.S is.
And that’s extensively what they were doing. But, they also had another project that was top secret at the time, it has since been declassified. That was much more interesting. It was called Project Iceworm. And Project Iceworm was a … again this is a top secret mission at the time, [00:07:30] to which they were testing the feasibility of being able to store, and transport, and deploy up to 600 nuclear missiles in the ice in buried silos, in the ice, with train tracks linking all of them. Up to 4000 kilometers in train tracks.
Lauren Lipuma: Wow.
Mike MacFerrin: That could link all of these tunnels and silo’s and you could actually be transporting missiles from one to the next. The Russians would never know where missiles were at any given point. So, if the U.S got attacked they could, on very short notice, launch a whole barrage of missiles [00:08:00] straight over the pole to Russia.
Lauren Lipuma: And this is because it’s so close?
Mike MacFerrin: This is because it’s so close. It was closer than you could put any other base without directly threatening Russia. If you tried to put a base in Northern Norway or Finland on the border just right close to Russia, it would be seen as a very serious sign of aggression. But if you put a top secret base across the ocean it was not quite the same.
But this was all top [00:08:30] secret. Even Greenland, much of Denmark didn’t know about some of the activities at Camp Century at the time. And they were testing these ideas. They actually built a train track in one of the tunnels and put a train car on it. It only went about a mile, mile and a half, any of the direction. It kind of questions what you do with a train that can’t go anywhere. But, they were testing the stability of the tunnels and if you had a train moving on there, how stable could you keep the tracks, and how could you build these things so that [00:09:00] you could do that.
Turns out that idea didn’t work. The ice moves too much, the tunnels close in on each other over time, the glacial ice will press in around it and slowly close the tunnels. In fact, in the Camp Century base they had to have people who worked full-time to shaving the sides of the tunnels and carting out ton after ton of ice just to keep the tunnels from slowly collapsing their buildings.
Lauren Lipuma: Oh my God.
Mike MacFerrin: It was a huge operation. But they found that with the way that ice moves, differentially [00:09:30] you’ll have some areas of ice move faster than others down slope. You’ll have tunnel closure … it was really infeasible just engineering-wise to keep a 4000 kilometers of tunnels, and 600 missile silos going actively under the ice.
So, that idea was eventually scrapped. I mean, to be honest, from the start it sounds like something that a general thought of over too many beers. But, eventually it was scrapped. And not too long after that [00:10:00] Camp Century ended up closing down.
Lauren Lipuma: About how long was it operational for then?
Mike MacFerrin: Roughly eight years. When they first installed the base they installed it with all these tunnels, and it was at first running on very large diesel generators. It would supply power and heat to the buildings, these large diesel engines. They’d spend millions of dollars putting in … well maybe not millions at the time, but a lot of money bringing in fuel to keep these generators running.
And eventually they replaced those with a portable [00:10:30] nuclear reactor.
Speaker 5: The last buildings to be assembled were those that would contain the nuclear sections. These shelves were built around the nuclear system equipment only after every major component had been put in place. The next phase was to be the activation of the nuclear power plant.
Lauren Lipuma: Wow.
Mike MacFerrin: They had a small nuclear power plant at the camp. The U.S military had six of those at the time. They were very expensive, it was by far more expensive than the rest of the camp. But they installed one at Camp Century. So, for the majority of its lifetime, [00:11:00] Camp Century was operational for roughly eight years, but for the majority of that it was running on nuclear power.
Lauren Lipuma: At the time it was operational, about how many people were there, living, working at a time?
Mike MacFerrin: It could house, full-time, up to about 250 soldiers at the time, yes. As I said the Project Iceworm didn’t end up happening. They shut it down and then Camp Century was shut down some time later. When they decommissioned the base they left everything behind. [00:11:30] They took the nuclear reactor with them, that was by far the most expensive portion of the whole base.
But, everything else they left behind.
Lauren Lipuma: What about the train?
Mike MacFerrin: The train’s still there.
Lauren Lipuma: It’s still there? Oh my God.
Mike MacFerrin: Train’s still there, sitting on a track buried in the ice. The tunnel has long since collapsed, you can’t climb down and go through the train tunnel anymore.
Lauren Lipuma: Right.
Mike MacFerrin: You can’t go through any of the tunnels anymore, they’ve been abandoned for more than 50 years. But it’s all still there. The train’s still there, all the buildings [00:12:00] are still there, all the pipes, all the wiring, all the fuel caches, all the human waste, all of it. Including the nuclear reactor did run on water. They would boil water and all the coolant water, they piped in a heated pipe a kilometer away and dumped in the snow, and that’s all still there as well.
Shane Hanlon: I can’t believe that all this stuff is still there. What were they thinking? What was their rationale.
Lauren Lipuma: Well at the time they really thought that everything they left behind would just be, kind [00:12:30] of, entombed forever under the ice. There was no reason at that point that this waste would ever become an environmental issue, and that kind of has to do with how ice sheets work.
Mike MacFerrin: Most ice sheets have two zones, we call it. There’s the accumulation zone, in the high cold interior. On a mountain glacier this would be the top of the mountain. It’s very cold there, snow falls, it doesn’t really melt away, it just accumulates year, after year, after year. When you drill an ice core they typically drill them up [00:13:00] in the high elevation areas in these accumulation zones where they can get these layers of snow fall year, after year, after year like layers of an onion for tens of thousands of years.
And the ice, under its own weight, then flows downhill slowly and that’s how you see these videos of glaciers flowing down a mountain, and slope, and flowing down a valley. And then when it gets to lower elevations it’s warmer there, and the ice does one of two things, it either melts in warm summers on the ice edge, or it spits out an iceberg into the ocean.
Over tens of thousands of years the glaciers, [00:13:30] in response to the climate, if it’s cold enough to grow a glacier there it will grow until it’s reached equilibrium where the amount of snowfall falling on it is more or less the same as the amount being sloughed off the sides, either in melt or icebergs. And then you have a glacier or an ice sheet in steady state.
Lauren Lipuma: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
At the time that Camp Century was decommissioned, what was, kind of, the state of the Greenland ice sheet at that point?
Mike MacFerrin: The Greenland ice sheet, to their knowledge, at the time was more or less in steady state. It wasn’t losing dramatic mass. [00:14:00] Most of the interesting studies were how the ice sheet worked, not how it was changing. In the official planning documents for these on-ice bases that the U.S military built, including Camp Century, anything that you left behind, and the wording they used was, “preserved for eternity.”
Lauren Lipuma: Wow.
Mike MacFerrin: And in the accumulation zone of a glacier … now eternity is an imaginary term in this case, but realistically on human time scales, that actually wasn’t a terribly bad assumption at the time. If [00:14:30] you dropped a marble in that part of the ice sheet it would take tens of thousands of years for that marble to get buried in the ice, the ice would slowly flow downhill, and then eventually it would reach the coast tens of thousands of years later, and it’d spit out into the ocean sometime in the future.
Times beyond which they were really concerned about at the time. At that time it’s an archeological artifact. So, anything you left behind they put under the auspices that it would be preserved for eternity including …
Speaker 5: … construction materials, [00:15:00] steel arches, clothing, nails, steel beams, prefabricated houses, lumber, food, even ice cream.
Mike MacFerrin: Climate change was not a factor in any of those decisions, at least not modern rapid climate change. Like climate change over Ice Ages was an interesting area of study. But it was a very different context.
Lauren Lipuma: So then, when did climate change become an issue and when did, I guess, this whole idea of Camp Century [00:15:30] kind of come up again.
Mike MacFerrin: Sure. Camp Century had been there and folks have known it was there. There had been a weather station there for a period of years that just because it was a spot that had been visited a number of times they kept a weather station there, scientific weather station was long after the military had left the site.
So, it was known about. It wasn’t secret, but nobody was really paying attention to it in terms of climate. It was still getting buried, in fact it’s still getting buried there today. Today [00:16:00] it’s buried under roughly 100 feet of snow. All those tunnels that were just under the surface before, it’s been snowing there every year for more than 50 years.
Really since recent climate change came up melt water has been creeping, surface melting is increasing on those low edges of the ice sheet where there’s always melt every summer. Where now it’s more melt than it used to be. And areas just uphill from that are getting more melt than they used to. And you still have a [00:16:30] dry snow zone in the middle of the ice sheet but that’s shrinking pretty rapidly right now.
And so, as you’re warming things up it then begs the question, well wait a minute, that stuff that’s buried, what’s gonna happen to that? And how long would it take til something happens to that? And that’s really where this thought of taking a harder look at Camp Century came from.
Nanci Bompey: So, people knew about Camp Century but did they know that there was this waste there and it could be a problem? [00:17:00] We’re talking about it kind of could be like an abandoned factory that you see on the side of the road but you don’t know if it’s a problem but you know it’s abandoned.
Lauren Lipuma: Right, exactly. People knew it was there but it kind of just fell off everyone’s radar for a while and they weren’t thinking about the waste anymore cause it was frozen under the ice. But then once climate change started to become an issue people started taking a second look at it. So, a couple of years ago Mike and his colleagues were looking at this and first they wanted to catalog exactly how much waste was there.
And then they did some climate simulations and they did some projections and thought, “Okay, what happens [00:17:30] if we continue to emit greenhouse gasses at the same rate we are now, what’s gonna happen to all this waste and could this pose an environmental problem?”
Mike MacFerrin: The study’s lead author, Dr. William Colgan, he started taking an interest in Camp Century. He had actually visited a weather station that was there, he knew about the base but didn’t know a lot about it. And so, he started looking into it just out of his own curiosity. Any information he could glean, he was collecting about this camp, Camp [00:18:00] Century. And he was doing this for years while he was doing his PhD, he was a PhD student at the time.
Lauren Lipuma: About when was this?
Mike MacFerrin: Within the past ten years Liam’s had been collecting information. So then, he decided he had enough information that he wanted to study this more directly, not just by looking at old documents but really go do a much more detailed study of what was happening at this site [00:18:30] and what the concerns were in a warming climate.
Lauren Lipuma: So you became a part of this team?
Mike MacFerrin: Sure.
Lauren Lipuma: And tell me about your guys; study, and what you did, and what you found.
Mike MacFerrin: Liam Colgan was a colleague of mine, we were both studying at the University of Colorado. We wanted to go to Camp Century and study there. We were going to do some ground penetrating radar surveys where you can send radio waves down into the ice and it can reflect off things. That are buried in the ice. So you can actually get an extent of where the debris, and the waste from this camp were left, and deep [00:19:00] were they, and how much was there. You can start to get some ideas of this if you went in there and studied this in detail.
But it takes money to get up there. And so we were looking for research funding to do this kind of thing and we went to a couple of agencies who rejected it. Some on political grounds, that this is a very politically fraught topic. And eventually we decided that well, if we can’t get funding to do this we have information already. We have models showing [00:19:30] what the warming will be like under different scenarios in the future, and we have a pretty good record of what was left there.
Speaker 5: The continuous flow of tractor trains bringing in enormous cargos were like the dependable tortoise, slow but steady. But they were our lifeline.
Mike MacFerrin: So, Liam decided to go ahead and put out a research paper with what we had. My involvement in this dealt with radar. There’s one particular radar frequency that was really good for measuring things on the order of one [00:20:00] to 300 feet down. So I used that radar to sort of scan, we could just see where the base was and approximately how wide it was.
And really the big finding of our paper, not that there’s just a base there and that climate’s warming, but we took the models which are currently tracking the scenario that we’re tracking on emissions models as emissions go up Camp Century is warming. It’s not yet really melting there much but, as climate warms it will be melting more [00:20:30] and more. We can’t say exactly what years. It’s colder some years than it is others. But on the average it’ll get more and more melt there in summer until before the end of this century it’s very likely to be melting out more than it snows every year. And at that point you’re no longer burying the base in layers of snow and ice, you’re now peeling them away like an onion.
And then it’s just inevitable, it’s just a matter of time until everything that was buried and left behind, “preserved for eternity,” is laid bare. And that’s [00:21:00] not on the order of tens of thousands of years. It’s not millennia, it’s centuries or less, decades, and that’s a real concern. There are people who live on the coast of Greenland there that never had a say of when this base was put in, but who would be effected directly by these pollutants now.
Lauren Lipuma: And so, how much is there and what would that do to the environment?
Mike MacFerrin: So there are some things we have pretty good records [00:21:30] on. There’s tens of thousands of gallons of fuel left in a cache there. There’s some unknown amount of human waste in a sump that … I mean you can take a guess 250 operating for eight years creates quite a sump. They didn’t cart that off the ice, they dumped it in a trench.
Speaker 5: Flexible sewage line also had to be run through the camp.
Mike MacFerrin: And then there’s … [crosstalk 00:21:55]
Lauren Lipuma: Frozen poop?
Mike MacFerrin: Yeah, frozen poop.
Lauren Lipuma: Frozen poop.
Mike MacFerrin: Lots and lots of it. There’s a lot of [00:22:00] building waste. PCB’s were used very frequently in building materials at the time and are in many of the buildings and infrastructure that’s still buried there. PCB’s are polychlorinated biphenyls, and they’re a material that was commonly used in building materials at the time in the 40’s and 50’s. But have since been known to be very dangerous, similar to asbestos but this was a neurotoxin and it’s not good to have in your environment.
And so they [00:22:30] eliminated those from building materials since then, we no longer see them put in buildings. But, they were very common at the time, and many of them were in the buildings at Camp Century, and many of them would leach into the environment, and into the meltwater and enter the ecosystem if Camp Century were ever exposed and was running off to the coast which is what we predict will happen in a warming climate.
Then there’s an unknown amount of nuclear waste water there.
Speaker 5: The crewmen were protected [00:23:00] by a shield of approximately eight feet of water as they lowered the fuel elements into the storage tank. Later each of these steel and uranium bars would be transferred under water to the nearby reactor core. Every step of the testing was meticulously monitored and regular announcements made to the workers assigned to the loading crew.
Mike MacFerrin: Now to our knowledge there was no very highly concentrated nuclear rods or anything like that left behind but [00:23:30] this is slightly radioactive and we’re not really sure how much was dumped away. There weren’t very great records kept on that. But all of that’s still there.
Lauren Lipuma: Do we need to clean it up, I guess? What do we need to do, do we need to do something about it?
Mike MacFerrin: Right now, it’s all still buried. At least as of yet it’s being “preserved.” As far as we know nothing’s moving around down there, it’s all buried under 100 feet of snow and ice. At the moment I would not recommend anyone go in there and try and dig it up, [00:24:00] it would be ridiculously expensive excavation operation.
But, as the climate warms we need to keep tabs on how much melt is occurring there. When will things start to runoff there and when they do how quickly will they be exposed? And when you’re at a point where you’re perhaps decades out from being exposed, when things are running off and the layer above these waste are getting thinner and thinner, then at some point somebody has to make a decision to go in and excavate [00:24:30] and remove these old materials, or let them simple runoff and enter the environment and harm the people living there that many of these communities they live on fishing, they live on hunting, they live on their local water supplies. These would very directly affect those communities.
And of course it’s in the Arctic Ocean too, which nobody wants. This is a big environmental concern just like if you had a large old factory with lots of chemicals left behind. This is what Superfund sites are, except [00:25:00] this one happens to be buried in the ice sheet. At some point somebody should clean this up. It’s hard to say exactly when that decision needs to be made. That’s above my pay grade to make that call.
But, in the meantime the government of Denmark has instantiated the Camp Century monitoring program, they’ve put a weather station there, they’ve done some radar surveys. The data’s available online, some of the initial reports from the site. So there has been some efforts [00:25:30] to start keeping a close eye on it, which is good, which I applaud.
But monitoring it isn’t the hard expensive part so those are decisions that will have to be made down the line. In the meantime the work I do has simply brought it to the forefront, that this is an issue that needs to be taken care of, and we can’t just pretend it’s not there because it is.
[00:26:00] Certainly there’s more work that could be done there to bring out in better detail what waste are there, and how much is left behind, and exactly how deep all these wastes, and where they’re located. That would be a very important planning information for anybody that in future decades did need to go excavate things.
But beyond that there’s not a whole lot to do about it now. However, there are other bases on the ice, Camp Century was simply [00:26:30] the largest of them. There was another base uphill from Camp Century called Camp Fistclench.
Lauren Lipuma: Why?
Mike MacFerrin: It gives you an idea about the sort of living conditions there.
Lauren Lipuma: Oh.
Mike MacFerrin: Camp Fistclench. But there were other ones. There’s a small base, Camp Tuto, which was at the edge of the ice. It was literally drilling tunnels straight into the side of the ice sheet that is currently melting out. It’s near Thule air force base, you can actually walk up to the edge of the ice. It wasn’t nearly as big as [00:27:00] Camp Century, there was not a nuclear reactor there. But, there are things that were buried in the ice that are melting out. You can actually go walk right up to the ice edge and see them.
There are still two large radar stations in South Greenland in the Arctic Circle that were part of the U.S’s DEW Line in the Cold War, the Detection Early Warning system, that were large installations, multi-story buildings with a large rotating radar dish on top that were monitoring for any [00:27:30] soviet invasion over the poles be it missiles, or airplanes, or anything of the sort.
One of them I’ve been in numerous times, you can still walk into it.
Lauren Lipuma: Wow.
Mike MacFerrin: It was abandoned one day in 1988, this is the DYE-2 station on the ice and everything was left behind, same as Camp Century. You walk in there, there’s still eggs in the fridge.
Lauren Lipuma: No way.
Mike MacFerrin: There’s canned goods on the shelves, there’s flowers on the table there’s … [crosstalk 00:27:52]
Lauren Lipuma: No way.
Mike MacFerrin: Yes.
Lauren Lipuma: What did the flowers look like?
Mike MacFerrin: Well the flowers they were fake.
Lauren Lipuma: Oh.
Mike MacFerrin: So, when you first see them you’re like, “Wow those [00:28:00] are in really good shape 30 years later.” Then you realize they’re nylon. But, there’s still books on the shelves and magazines in the room.
Lauren Lipuma: That’s crazy.
Mike MacFerrin: It’s really creepy walking around in there. The paint’s peeling off the walls and you’re like, “If anywhere was haunted, this would be it.” Those installations are still on the ice, actually still just in the process of being buried. But it’s a similar concern that those won’t stay buried especially this DYE-2 station that’s already in an area that receives a lot of melt.
Shane Hanlon: Okay, but I [00:28:30] wonder now how will Greenland and Denmark deal with all this waste when the time comes.
Lauren Lipuma: Well, that’s the thing is that no one really knows yet how to deal with it, and it’s still a few decades off at least. Right now the best thing to do is just keep monitoring it, and Denmark is already doing that which is great. But it’s really unclear what needs to happen, and when, and who needs to take care of it because it was a U.S military base on Greenland soil but Greenland is still technically a Danish territory and there’s [00:29:00] no international environmental law that says how to clean it up.
Shane Hanlon: No Superfund maritime law.
Lauren Lipuma: Exactly, that says how you clean this up or who needs to clean it up. So, it’s a tricky situation, it’s not something that they ever thought they’d have to deal with.
Mike MacFerrin: This is one of those topics that is a really interesting intersection of science, and climate, and geopolitics, and unintended consequences. [00:29:30] To be fair, when they installed Camp Century they did not expect it to pollute anything for tens and thousands of years. And by then many of the pollutants would have broken down, it’s archeological.
And so, there wasn’t reckless abandon, per se. It can certainly be viewed that way in today’s context and it was a bit of a different time than in terms of viewpoints and how you’re supposed to treat the environment. But it’s been called by [00:30:00] Jeff Colgan, who’s a political scientist, no relation, he’s talked about these as the knock-on effects of climate change. This isn’t something that is an immediate impact of climate change. Climate change raises these geopolitical tensions from things that were never supposed to interact with our climate but suddenly are, and are suddenly a concern.
This is really the very tangled web of things that we weren’t really [00:30:30] ready for in a warming climate. And now we’re happening and now we have to figure out how to deal with them.
Shane Hanlon: All right, well so bringing it back around what do we think James Bond would do in this situation?
Lauren Lipuma: I don’t know what he would do but I have this vision of him just driving his little Aston Martin through those ice tunnels, they’re collapsing all the time.
Nanci Bompey: [00:31:00] Making some martinis with the melting ice.
Shane Hanlon: Oh yeah.
Lauren Lipuma: Oh yes.
Shane Hanlon: While he’s driving.
Lauren Lipuma: Absolutely.
Shane Hanlon: Just glass out to the side. Not even breaking a sweat. All right, so that’s all from Third Pod From the Sun, Centennial Edition.
Nanci Bompey: Thank you so much to Lauren for bringing us this story and to Mike for sharing his work with us.
Shane Hanlon: The podcast is also produced with help from Josh Speiser, Olivia Ambrogio, Katie Broendel, and Liza Lester. And thanks to Robyn Murray for producing this episode.
Nanci Bompey: We would love to [00:31:30] hear your thoughts on our podcast. Please rate and review us on Apple Podcast or listen to us wherever you get your podcast. And of course you can always find us at thirdpodfromthesun.com.
Shane Hanlon: And be on the lookout for more centennial episodes to come.
Nanci Bompey: As well as our regular episodes.
Shane Hanlon: Woo-hoo.
Nanci Bompey: Yay.
Shane Hanlon: All right, thanks all and we’ll see you next time.
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