LOGAN – A Cold War relic unearthed under the Greenland ice sheet during a secret military operation half a century ago provided what scientists have called “breathtaking” and potentially threatening glimpses into the future of a warming earth.
An international team of scientists announced their conclusions after examining a sample of ice and sediment that was caught in a drilling operation in the 1960s and then lost and forgotten. It wasn’t until 2017 that scientists rediscovered the sample in a freezer. They have now correlated this evidence with ice cores from other parts of Greenland to come to worrying conclusions.
Utah State University professor of geology, Tammy Rittenour, who played a significant role in the studies, described the results as “shocking” as they suggest that the entire Greenland ice sheet has collapsed completely at least twice and is much less stable than previously thought .
If it melts again, Rittenour believes the consequences could be disastrous for people around the world.
Aside from its scientific merit, the Saga of Frozen Evidence also contains breathtaking elements that could have come from a Cold War thriller.
“It’s a cool story in a cold place,” said Rittenour, describing a top-secret 1960s military operation that literally took place in the ice.
Camp Century: A hidden base with a secret purpose
The Greenland ice sheet is an amazing natural phenomenon, a gigantic sheet of ice up to 1.6 km deep that covers an area more than four times the size of California.
During the Cold War, the Pentagon planners decided it was a perfect place to dig in and build a military base called Camp Century. Tunnels and large work areas were carved out of the ice and covered with snow and ice.
“You could dig up a huge bunker under the ice sheet and nobody would know,” said Rittenour in an interview on the USU campus. “It would be invisible from above.”
The base itself was no secret; CBS host Walter Cronkite even went into the ice sheet and toured Camp Century in 1960. Military officials depicted it as a place for scientific research. Its real purpose was a highly rated military secret.
Known as Project Iceworm, the top-secret plan was to hide 600 mobile nuclear missiles under the ice and keep them ready for launch in case the cold war with the Soviet Union suddenly turned into a hot war. Eventually, however, the Pentagon abandoned the plan.
“They had to,” said Rittenour, “because it was cut into ice and the ceiling kept collapsing.”
Camp Century left a unique piece of evidence for future scientists. In 1966, a huge rig inside the base bored its way through the ice sheet, nearly a mile down, and even a few feet deeper, into sediments below.
“They collected that, looked at it and put it in a freezer and forgot about it,” said Rittenour.
Iceworm Project: Notes for Future Scientists
In 2017, scientists rediscovered the forgotten sand and ice in a freezer in Denmark. They were amazed to find petrified plants at the bottom of the ice core. Rittenour calls it a “treasure trove” of evidence because it shows that the ice cover must have completely melted away twice. Rittenour’s job was to find out how long ago that was.
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In her darkened “luminescence laboratory” on the USU Innovation Campus, she bombarded the sand with lasers to measure its luminescence properties.
“And that tells us how old it is,” she explained. “The last time it was exposed to light.”
Rittenour said scientists previously thought the ice sheet had been stable for maybe two and a half million years. She said she was “shocked” to discover that the sand was last exposed to sunlight less than 1 million years ago – possibly much less.
“Perhaps only half a million or several hundred thousand years ago the ice cover melted away,” said Rittenour.
She said this implied that the ice sheet may be a little less stable than scientists believe and could collapse in a relatively short period of time.
Meltdown: “An urgent problem for the next 50 years”
The results have implications for humanity that could be catastrophic. Using various cues, including air bubbles from glacial ice around the world, scientists have recorded the rise and fall of atmospheric carbon dioxide over the past million years. As the CO2 decreased, the ice cover grew. As the CO2 increased, the glacier ice began to melt. In the modern industrial age, atmospheric data shows a dramatic increase, a seemingly unprecedented increase in carbon dioxide.
“Today it is way outside the natural range of CO2 concentrations,” said Rittenour.
In recent years, the Greenland ice sheet seems to be melting faster and faster. If there is another total meltdown, it is estimated that the oceans will rise 20 to 25 feet – much more if Antarctica melts too. This threatens the lifestyles and lives of hundreds of millions of people in coastal villages, towns and cities around the world.
“If the Greenland ice sheet melted,” said Rittenour, “all these coastal areas would be flooded, entire countries under water and most of the world’s population would be disturbed.”
The half-century old ice core does not answer all questions and does not predict the future. More studies are coming, and this mystery from the past once buried under the ice could tell us a lot about the future of humanity.
“This is not a problem of the twenty generations,” said geoscientist Paul Bierman in the study team Press release from the University of Vermont. “This is an urgent problem for the next 50 years.”