The United States dug a complex system of tunnels under the Greenland ice sheet during the Cold War. Now, sixty years later, the base has revealed a vital piece of information regarding the climate problem.
In 1959, the United States began building an actual replica of Echo Base from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, which was frozen during filming. Camp Century was supposed to be a research outpost in northwest Greenland where scientists could conduct experiments on snow tunneling technology not too far from the geographic north pole. The United States was really just showing off its military might, and Project Iceworm, a plan to bury 600 nuclear missiles under thousands of miles of snow in northern Greenland near the former Soviet Union, was probably on the table. However, the island’s huge ice sheet had other plans for Camp Century; the constant movement of the ice made it a poor location for either storing nuclear weapons or operating the base’s nuclear reactor.
Rediscovering a Lost World: Unveiling the Ancient Tundra Ecosystem Buried Beneath Greenland’s Ice
After the United States abandoned Camp Century in 1966, the tunnels used by Iceworm collapsed. However, before everyone ran away, scientists drilled a core 4,550 feet deep under the ice sheet, uncovering real scientific dirt. A lump of frozen sand, dirty ice, cobbles, and muck was brought up after they bored down 12 feet into the soil. The military transferred the ice core to the University of Buffalo’s freezers in the 1970s. In the 1990s, the core was transported to Denmark, where it was maintained frozen until the present day, when it is providing scientists with priceless insight into prior ice ages.
However, the sediment was mostly forgotten until 2018 when it was rediscovered in cookie jars at the University of Copenhagen’s cold storage. Now, scientists from all across the world have investigated that material and produced a groundbreaking finding.
“In that frozen sediment are leaf fossils and little bits of bugs and twigs and mosses that tell us in the past there was a tundra ecosystem living where today there’s almost a mile of ice,” says Paul Bierman, a geoscientist from the University of Vermont and coauthor of a new paper describing the finding in the journal Science. The ice sheet is quite delicate. It can vanish, and it has vanished. That has finally been scheduled.
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Greenland was thought to have been permanently frozen over by glaciers about 2.5 million years ago. By 2021, Bierman and his team had established that there hadn’t been any ice for at least a million years. Scientists have determined that the tundra environment preserved in the Camp Century core existed just 416,000 years ago, meaning that northwest Greenland was not glaciated at that time.
Additionally, scientists have shown that average global temperatures were almost the same as they are today. In contrast to today’s steadily rising concentration of 422 parts per million, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were roughly 280 parts per million back then. As a result of human-caused global warming, temperatures are expected to rise above those that caused the Greenland ice sheet to melt and give rise to the tundra ecosystem in the first place. “It’s a forewarning,” says Tammy Rittenour, a geoscientist at Utah State University and a coauthor of the new paper. This is possible even with much reduced CO2 levels.
Impending Peril: The Looming Threat of Greenland Ice Sheet Collapse and Rising Sea Levels
This thawing has the potential to be quite dangerous. Sea levels rose by at least 5 feet due to the melting of Greenland ice 400,000 years ago, and maybe as much as 20 feet, according to a new research. Climate scientist Michael Mann from the University of Pennsylvania, who was not involved in the study, said, “These findings raise additional concern that we could be coming perilously close to the threshold for collapse of the Greenland ice sheet and massive additional sea level rise of a meter or more.” Already, even with the possibility for an additional 20 feet, the global sea level increase of less than a foot already producing major flooding and storm surge concerns for coastal cities.
The water level might rise irreversibly if Greenland were to once again begin melting. The melting of an ice sheet exposes the darker earth underneath, which increases local temperatures by absorbing more of the sun’s energy.
An outside expert on the topic, geoscientist Richard B. Alley of Pennsylvania State University, believes that if too much mass is lost and the height of the surface decreases sufficiently, the resultant warming of the surface makes regrowth of the ice sheet more difficult. With even moderate persistent temperature, the new analysis shows that considerable melting in Greenland will be driven, leading to sea-level rise.