Cold War Lessons From Greenland’s Ice

Image: Peter Prokosch/ GRID-Arendal

by Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

During the Cold War, the U.S. had grand plans to hide nuclear missiles beneath Greenland’s ice. While that project didn’t pan out, as part of the work, researchers extracted a massive mile-long ice core and 12 feet of frozen soil. That soil was analyzed decades later, and the leaves, twigs, and mosses found in the sample reveal that Greenland was ice-free less than a million years ago (a relative blip in geological time). This means that, as the Washington Post reported, that the biggest reservoir of ice in the Northern Hemisphere can collapse due to relatively small increases in temperature over a long period of time. 

Why this Matters: Greenland is losing its ice at record rates, leading to about 14 mm of sea level rise over the past 50 years. Without changes to current global emissions, the ice sheet could hit a tipping point where there’s more melt than accumulation before 2050. It could lose as much as 35,900 billion tons of ice by 2100, causing three feet of sea level rise. A totally melted ice sheet would raise sea levels by 20 feet

We don’t want to see what that looks like,” Andrew Christ, one of the lead researchers told the Washington Post. “It underscores the urgency of needing to change the way things are going right now.”

Full Circle Study: The soil sample from the U.S. military’s top-secret “Project Iceworm” came from the military trying to disguise the true nature of their missile-burying operation. That project didn’t come to fruition, but the research carried out to protect it turns out to be much more valuable. 

As Christ and his advisor and co-author Paul Bierman wrote in The Conversation, “An Arctic military base built in response to the existential threat of nuclear war inadvertently led us to discover another threat from ice cores – the threat of sea level rise from human-caused climate change. Now, its legacy is helping scientists understand how the Earth responds to a changing climate.”

Melting Will Redraw Coastlines: About 40% of people on earth live on or near the coast, and climate displacement is already happening from the sea level rise and more intense storms we’re experiencing today. Scientists say that every centimeter in global sea level rise exposes another 6 million people to coastal flooding. Looking at the Greenland ice sheet alone — the only permanent ice sheet outside of Antarctica — if current emissions continue, 100 million people will experience flooding every year by the end of the century.  


Up Next

US Green Diplomat Previews Glasgow

US Green Diplomat Previews Glasgow

By WW0 Staff For the United States, the post-Trump, pre-COP26 road to Glasgow has been paved with ambition and humility. In a major speech, the President’s Envoy, John Kerry, previewed the results of his climate diplomacy before heading into two weeks of intense deliberations of world leaders. Speaking at the London School of Economics — […]

Continue Reading 421 words
One Cool Thing: COP26 Coverage Kickoff

One Cool Thing: COP26 Coverage Kickoff

Next week, the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow will draw hundreds of world leaders to Glasgow to determine the path forward five years after the Paris Climate Agreement (for a primer, read this) as new science underscores the urgency. The conference aims to squeeze countries to strengthen the commitments they’ve made towards securing global net-zero […]

Continue Reading 194 words
DOD Says Climate Change Increases National Security Risks

DOD Says Climate Change Increases National Security Risks

By Amy Lupica, ODP Daily Editor In a report released last week, the Department of Defense (DOD) confirmed that existing risks and security challenges in the US are being made worse due to “increasing temperatures; changing precipitation patterns; and more frequent, intense, and unpredictable extreme weather conditions caused by climate change. Now, the Pentagon is […]

Continue Reading 440 words

Want the planet in your inbox?

Subscribe to the email that top lawmakers, renowned scientists, and thousands of concerned citizens turn to each morning for the latest environmental news and analysis.