OF SHIFTING ICE, AND NUCLEAR FIRES
In the summertime of 1959, situated in the subsurface glacial ices of a remote region in Greenland, the United States undertook a curious and ambitious project. Located about 240 kilometres East of the Thule Air Base, the Army branch of the United States defence forces began carving a series of long, parallel trenches that would be thereafter connected via several intersecting tunnels. By October 1960, this hefty excavation work had established the Camp Century research base; a military and scientific outpost encompassing 21 tunnels, covering a distance of about 3 kilometres beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet – a unique facility capable of housing over 200 personnel, with a projected operational lifespan of 10 years. The concept, design, and anticipated goals of this Arctic research facility were spelled out in a technical report from the era; to experiment with innovative technologies pertinent for cold climate exploration and inhabitation, and establish a base of operations to conduct scientific investigations in the northern polar environment. To much public acclaim, the camp was visually presented as a new, heroic conquest of the Arctic frontier in service to humanity's never-ending pursuit of knowledge and innovation. But, unbeknownst to this audience (and even the Danish Government), the facility was developed to also test the feasibility of installing secretive mobile ICBM launch facilities under the ice sheet as part of strike capabilities against the USSR – a covert Cold War programme called ‘Project Iceworm’, which was a clear violation of the Danish position on nuclear armaments. No missiles, however, would ever be installed at 77.13° N, 61.03° W.
The architects of this base did not possess a complete survey or understanding of the dynamic glacial forces which had long shaped and reshaped this frozen landscape. The design of the base inside the near-surface ‘firn strata’ of an active glacier proved too difficult to consistently maintain due to the shifting ice sheets, therefore the project was minimally decommissioned in 1967, leaving behind many in-situ hazardous waste substances. Some of the known hazardous material deposits include; trichloroethylene (a carcinogenic lubricant and fuel), residual glycol (a toxic, anti-freezing agent), 'nontrivial' quantities of PCBs (a now identified POP under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants), about 200,000 litres of diesel, stored radioactive effluent from the [removed] PM-2A mobile reactor, 24 million litres of untreated sewage accrued over the camps lifespan, and about 9,200 metric tonnes of other trivial debris constituting the structure and facilities available at the site (remains of a chapel, personnel quarters, gym, vehicles, reactor and laboratory rooms etc.). These materials were simply abandoned inside the structure, intended to be permanently entombed by the encroaching ice, a facility now crushed under the weight of these persistently shifting forces. The status of this site possesses much relevance for other hazardous legacies documented across our research
programme, but it is also reflective of similar disposal strategies like the Runit Dome, along with other experienced tangential and traumatic features emblematic of hazardous material legacies.
WHAT IS PAST, MAY BECOME PROLOGUE
Not all of the material legacies to arise from this facility are, however, so adverse in nature. Perhaps one of the most resonant outcomes gained from this ‘initiative in the ice’ is the scientific knowledge accumulated from the extracted 0.108 wide x 1390-metre-long ice core; research which intricately documents the past instability of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Drilled between 1963–1967, the Camp Century Ice Core is often hailed as the first ‘to the glacial bed’ sample to be extracted for scientific research, with portions of the frozen specimen still held in the U.S. National Science Foundation Ice Core Facility, in addition to segments of this slim cylinder of ice which are now archived at the University of Copenhagen (over the years, having been previously stored in U.S. Army lab freezers, and then transferred to the University of Buffalo, before entering Denmark’s custodianship). Studies eagerly conducted in earnest on the latter ‘travelled’ samples containing subglacial ice, sediment, and rock have uncovered multitudes of 'freeze-dried fossils' interspersed throughout the detritus extracted from nearly a mile beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet – illustrating a time in the last million years when the landmass was free of ice, and likely supporting vegetation from an Arctic tundra-type ecosystem. Other analyses of this core material would elucidate further, uninterrupted past planetary records; documenting intricate changes such as surface temperature and precipitation levels over the last 20,000 years, furnishing researchers with corroborative data for past solar and geomagnetic activity, and chronicling climatic oscillations in atmospheric gas concentrations over the last 100,000 years. All of this advancing research that we continue to learn from, clearly points to the impermanence of the Greenland Ice Sheet, and the impacts that anthropogenic climate change is now having on this complex but fragile cryosystem, with an array of consequences still to manifest from this thawing ice.
The very impermanence of the ice sheet, possesses sobering lessons for the prescribed permanence of the abandoned Camp Century site to reliably entomb hazardous waste ‘forever’. Today, the Camp Century Monitoring Programme led by GEUS continues to silently observe the behaviour of the surrounding ice and other climatic variables at the site; to predict signs of contamination, as well as support further climate monitoring in the region for subsequent study. Site remediation is difficult to organise in lieu of past intergovernmental agreements, in addition to also falling into a controversial ‘grey area’ within international environmental laws, but acknowledging this complexity draws into contention the need for intergenerational laws to still safeguard the great silent majority of human posterity from the hazardous legacies we bequeath as an ‘alternative heritage’. If meltwater begins interacting with the residual debris field, presently buried at a depth of 32 metres, it could mobilise contaminants by the end of this century. In this sense, the intended secrecy and enduring internment of this outpost, ironically, is now both elucidated and also disputed by the very research it enabled former scientist occupants to freely explore. More broadly, this same research on climatic changes also possesses perennial implications for the entire region, and the stability of contemporary global conditions in the face of diminishing shadows from these ice sheets; the released meltwater from a thawing Greenland, will inevitably increase worldwide sea levels (by about 7.2 metres, as stated by the IPCC) leading to widespread flooding, in addition to negatively affecting the established global ocean conveyor belts, evapotranspiration cycles, and other feedback mechanisms of the worldwide climate systems. This past in the cores record, a snapshot captured in the ice, therefore functions as a forewarning for possible future paths our planet could take for us. For the moment, the inheritance of Camp Century remains buried, but the long-term internment of its hazardous legacy is less certain.
LEARNING FROM THE PRECIPICE
The information gleaned from this premier ice core legacy, in addition to similar resources uncovered elsewhere in the cryosphere, provide an intimate window into our dynamic planet’s history of transformations and past periods of stabilisation, but these very accounts are also curtailed by the very ephemeral nature of their sources which will continue to degrade naturally, or be impacted through human-induced changes over time. For instance, it is anticipated to be highly impractical to experimentally re-verify data obtained from the 420,000–800,000 years of atmospheric CO2 records (preserved in the perishable Vostok and EPICA Dome C ice cores), should custodial institutes fail to maintain the integrity of extracted samples against future logistical disruptions (financial restrictions, asset management policies,
specialised storage requirements etc.). Concurrently, the original extraction sites for these cores are, or expected to become, compromised in the face of encroaching anthropogenic factors, in addition to the natural geo-chemical reprocessing cycles of the Earth itself. For instance, the source site for a 100-metre-long ice core sample drilled in 1984 by the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research may presently remain intact, but the nearby Filchner Research Station was carried off by a calving event in 1998 (the base became stranded on iceberg A38/B). We may also find that these ageing samples and older datasets, can serve as a contextual resource for supporting newer scientific inquiries not previously conceived of. As demonstrated by the impetus of U.S. researchers to physically access the older Camp Century Ice Core sediment samples in Copenhagen proves, such resources are already considered as a rarity – even for modern scientific investigations with newer technological capabilities – with the extraction of these particular samples necessitating extensive investment and sponsorship by the U.S. government to temporarily inhabit an inhospitable region of the Arctic. Original datasets from these diminishing sources may, therefore, become the only golden indicators for further scientific investigations, but this data storage will also likely face similar types of logistical disruptions – a truism, even for today.
In drawing attention to the ephemerality of these records, and the conservation of their ecological sources, it becomes vividly clear that posterity may be incapable of reproducing some scientific observations and standard studies which have led to reliable datasets necessary for contemplating the ongoing evolution of these complex systems across our dynamic biome. After all, ice melts, in the process releasing captured air bubbles required for isotopic analyses of atmospheric variability across time. Likewise, preserved organic matter will simply decay when re-exposed to conditions which are conducive for microbial activity. Furthermore, contextual indicators preserved in the intricate layering of ocean and lake sediments are, through interactions with the anthroposphere, persistently churned together, in addition to the irrecuperable loss of readability in dendrochronological samples from some of Earth’s oldest inhabitants (for example, the [deceased] Muir Snag, the oldest known Giant Sequoia tree, contains 3,500 years' worth of forest growth records which chronicle local climatic conditions). These are but some of the already identified endangered sources of information with limited windows for re-examination and re-testing. Other datasets are also simply difficult to replicate, due to our proximity, or capability, to access the original source material sites – spacecraft sample-return payloads from astronomical bodies being perhaps the most emblematic example of ‘extremes’ in this issue. Clearly, there is a time-dependency associated with sources for some earthly records; informational assets which must be preserved as reliable datasets for posterity to reassess the conditions of their changing world – at least as a comparative history, to model potential future conditions. Custodianship of these ageing planetary records, as data, is therefore a crucial necessity; to ensure the future comprehension of pathways our past biome has taken, and patterns (for example) our climate cycles may fall back into, while enabling future revelations to be gained from ‘older’ data, with new contextual purpose.
FOOTNOTING FOR POSTERITY
As part of the After the Horizon initiative, the Beyond the Earth foundation is committed to identifying vulnerable planetary records, in collaboration with environmental advocates, local ecologist communities, and leading scientific institutes, to ensure that this vital data is maintained for the benefit of posterity stewardship applications, while raising awareness of our need to, at least, safeguard some baseline knowledge for the worlds of tomorrow. This goal adheres with our stated ethos to furnish posterity nations and research consortia with a factual opportunity to make informed decisions on behalf of their inherited life-world, through the conservation of important data from sources that may not be readily available for further scientific scrutiny. Towards this challenging objective, we have structured an initial, thought-provoking question for the scientific communities involved within climate monitoring, in order to distil an inaugural foundation for this ‘perishable catalogue of Earth history’;
What significant environmental records, acquired through modern scientific investigations, should we ideally now aim to preserve for the benefit of posterity to make informed decisions on behalf of their inherited world(s)? If ‘everything’ is not practical, what time-limited materials are deemed ‘essential’?
To contribute your own thoughts in response to the above question, please use the fields in the contact form below.
This query was informally launched to coincide with the 26th United Nations Climate Change conference (COP26), as a research and scientific outreach tool, to avail of the paramount, high-level international discussions surrounding humanities’ role in influencing the near-to-distant future of Earth’s climate on behalf of posterity. The initial proposals for datasets to feature in this unique catalogue, alongside caches of affiliated media, are still being peer-evaluated as part of an ongoing conversation with expert communities. However, we are seeking keen additional reviewers and institute partnerships to expand upon this initial research catalogue. Our principal aspiration for this active archive is to consign its documentation to a permanent, intergovernmental hardened archive (i.e. physically inscribed records, on a highly durable carrier vessel), while also sharing this media with other long-term archival institutes as part of a LOCKSS (Lots Of Copies Keep Stuff Safe) strategy for data conservation (see our archival partners for details about their established preservation technologies and operations in ensuring information conservation). To further complement this ongoing survey and archival work, the foundation plans to utilise ‘static’ versions of this evolving catalogue, and supporting materials, as a basis for addressing the various semiotical challenges of memory-retention customs in our forthcoming ‘Companion Guide to Earth’ initiative, in addition to establishing public outreach, and engagement in these emergent fields of ‘alternative heritage’.
Notes to the catalogue: This preliminary index demarcates proposed datasets according to general disciplines of relevance under select categories, while further chronicling this listing in the order of peer-publication for materials, with some author and geocoordinate information included for further archiving purposes. Apart from the scientific value of these interred studies and associated datasets, this forthcoming catalogue will hopefully provide a crucial resource for educators in the prospects of long-term climate recording, and provide a fruitful avenue for inspiring the development of additional deep time studies, which may only prove insightful for the generations that may learn from these enduring investigations.
Page last updated: 21 Oct 2021