Lessons of the century

UPDATE | A monitoring expedition to Camp Century on the Greenland ice cap finds the best thing we can do to keep its toxic waste in place is to prevent the ice that entombs it from melting

The Camp Century basecamp: three common tents, six personal tents and bad weather most of the time (Photo: William Colgan / Geus)

Preliminary findings of a scientific expedition to a once-secret American military base under the Greenland ice cap show that pollution left behind there appears to be spread over a larger area than first assumed, though its lead scientist suggests the base’s emergence from the ice is not imminent.

The goal of the 18-day Camp Century Climate Monitoring Programme Expedition to north-western Greenland starting on July 19 was to gather information about the extent of toxic and radioactive waste entombed there since the 1960s and install equipment that will keep tabs on the temperature inside the ice cap.

Expedition leader William Colgan, a Canadian climatologist with Geus, the geological survey of Denmark and Greenland, and the author of a paper, published last year, describing the potential consequences of the base’s emergence from the ice, underscored that it would take a year before any findings about the amount of pollution or its spread could be fully confirmed.

In the meantime, he said any discussion about Camp Century should focus on the need to act to keep temperature rises to a minimum, to prevent it from emerging from the ice cap and its pollution from leeching out in meltwater.

“Everyone seems to expect that it is going to come out, but that’s only if we stick to the business-as-usual climate change scenario. We’re at a fork in the road, and this shows us that we should be talking about what we can do to prevent climate change, not how we should react to it. In the end, it will cost more if we don’t make the right decisions now.”

Under a modest climate-change scenario as described by the Paris climate agreement, Mr Colgan reckons, Camp Century and its pollution – chemicals, construction materials and low-level radioactive waste – could remain frozen in the ice cap until “well into the next century”.

Another of the immediate lessons from the expedition was the challenge of planning and executing an expedition to that part of Greenland. Mr Colgan is a veteran of multiple Greenland expeditions and visited the site of Camp Century last year on “a day trip”, but said the logistics of this year’s mission had been “exceptionally difficult”, due to its remote location and frequent storms.

The six-scientists taking part in the expedition report completing 95% of their tasks, despite difficult weather conditions that limited working days to a third of the time they were in place, and storms that at one point saw snow falling faster than they could clear it away.

During the next year, the information gathered by the expedition using ground-piercing radar will be used to compile a map of the base and get a clearer indication of the spread of the pollution that will be used to plan future missions.

A team will need to visit the site each year to service the monitoring equipment put in place by this year’s expedition.

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