The hidden risks of climate change

15 August 2016

The background

Climate change is the change in average weather conditions over a long time period and includes temperature, wind, rainfall, length of seasons and even the frequency of extreme weather.

Earth’s climate is undergoing substantial changes mainly as a result of human activity causing greenhouse gas emissions. In a normal greenhouse exposure to sunlight causes the internal temperature to become warmer than the external temperature, thus protecting the plant life in cold weather. Similarly, the greenhouse gases in earth’s atmosphere act like a huge glass enclosure that traps the heat and stops it from escaping to space.

Before the Industrial Revolution climate change was due to natural causes such as movement of continents, volcanoes and solar energy fluctuations. More recently however, the rate of climate change has been accelerated by humans. Higher temperatures, melting ice, and rising sea levels are current indicators of climate change.

Global warming is the number one factor affecting climate change today. It is a subset of climate change and describes the increase in Earth’s average temperature as a result of increased greenhouse gas build up. Most people think of climate change and global warming as interchangeable, however one major difference is that climate change generally has an effect globally, regionally and locally whereas global warming has a worldwide effect.

Satellite observations show that Arctic sea ice is now declining at a rate of 13.3 percent per decade, relative to the 1981 to 2010 average (NASA Global Climate Change).

Luckily most of us are aware of the risks facing planet earth and many have taken steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, 192 countries have signed the Kyoto protocol and have committed to various programs, incentives and penalties to deal with reducing greenhouse gases.

Very few people have considered the unseen and until recently the unknown risks related to melting ice and the resulting pollutants being exposed to the environment.

The frozen surprise

Even though the Cold War superpowers never engaged in conventional armed conflict, both were prepared for a full-scale nuclear war. The US and the Soviet Union each had the same deterrent to attacking each other being that any attack would result in the destruction of the attacker as well. The term “cold” was used as no large-scale fighting occurred between the two countries and funnily enough “cold” applies perfectly to the rest of the story.

During the Cold War the US started paying attention to the Arctic area as this was the closest that USA and the Soviet Union came in terms of geographical distance. Greenland, in 1951 a Danish governed territory, was at risk of Soviet attack therefore Denmark and the US reached an agreement to defend the area. The US then built several airbases, but in 1959 a US military base was built 200 kilometres from the coast and was contained entirely within the ice sheet eventually becoming known as the ‘’City under the ice”. This base was called Camp Century.

Camp Century was built with Denmark’s approval and the fact that the base doubled as a top secret site for testing the possibilities of deploying nuclear missiles was kept from the Danish government. This test site became known as Project Iceworm which was eventually rejected by the US government and the camp was then decommissioned. The army removed the nuclear reaction chamber, but left everything else behind with the assumption that the snowfall would eventually cover and hide the camp remains forever. Since decommissioning the camp has been buried under about 35 metres of ice.

In this case forever is not very long as climate change has warmed the Arctic area far more than anywhere else on earth. New studies indicate that by the end of the century the ice sheet covering the camp will start melting. If this happens the camp’s buildings and infrastructure plus any biological, radioactive or chemical waste would be released into the environment with potentially destructive results. Scientists have estimated the 55 hectare site contains 250 000 litres of liquid waste including radioactive coolant and sewage, plus 200 000 litres of diesel fuel. It is not known whether this scenario will happen in 100 years or in 1000 years, but what we are sure of is that human generated climate change has accelerated the process.

The main question to ask is “Who is responsible for cleaning up when the ice melts?” This could lead to political disputes that could not have been conceived when building the camp. International law is specific and clear about who is responsible for preventing hazardous waste in the future, but is equally unclear about liability for previously discarded waste. An old US base on Danish soil and self-governed by Greenland makes this task extremely complex to resolve and we can only hope that when this does happen the resolution is swift to avoid excessive pollution.

It makes me wonder what other as yet unknown climate change risks await future generations to deal with.

(With thanks to University of Colorado Boulder for their report on the Greenland study.)

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