A Radioactive Cold War Military Base Will Soon Emerge From Greenland’s Melting Ice

They thought the frozen earth would keep it safely hidden. They were wrong

What secrets do those lonely ice sheets hold? Joe Raedle / Getty Images News

As climate change warms the Earth, melting ice is uncovering troves of cultural treasures and dangers once thought to be lost forever—from mummified bodies and ancient coins to anthrax-infected reindeer carcasses. Now, scientists have identified what might just be the most surreal thing to emerge from the ice: the remnants of a covert U.S. Army base teeming with radioactive waste, abandoned decades ago in northwestern Greenland.

Climate change could uncover the toxic and radioactive waste left behind at Camp Century as early as 2090, reports a new study published yesterday in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. The 115 feet of snow and ice now covering the Cold War-era base is already melting faster than it can be replaced, a prospect the military likely hadn’t dreamed of at the time. The study’s authors warn that the soon-to-be-uncovered waste could become a political minefield and foreshadow future international conflicts as climate change reshapes Earth.

When the ice melts, an estimated 9,200 tons of physical materials and 53,000 gallons of diesel fuel could be exposed and carried toward the ocean by meltwater. Other waste at the site includes small amounts of radioactive coolant water from Camp Century’s nuclear power plant, and carcinogenic toxins used in paints and fluids called polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs are already found in high levels in the Arctic, after being released into oceans in urban waste and carried there by wind and ocean currents.

Camp Century was founded nearly 60 years ago as a model of new kind of Arctic base. Just 800 miles from the North Pole, the base was built in large trenches buried underneath ice and snow to protect the base and its personnel from temperatures that could reach -70 degrees F and wind gusts up to 125 miles per hour. Camp Century included its own nuclear power plant, scientific labs, a library and even a chapel and barbershop, according to an overview of the base written by historian Frank Leskovitz.

This “city under the ice” was no secret; Walter Cronkite visited it in 1961. But its true purpose—to house nuclear weapons—was. In reality, Camp Century was designed as a cover operation to house workers and equipment for what the military had designated  “Project Iceworm.” Even Danish authorities had no idea what was really going on in their territory.

“It sounded so farfetched that I didn’t know whether to believe him,” says international policy expert Jeff Colgan, of his reaction upon being approached by a glaciologist at York University to coauthor a study on the future of Camp Century’s remains.

In 1959, as the Cold War arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union reached a fever pitch, the U.S. military sought a way to secretly store nuclear weapons underneath Greenland’s ice sheet to launch over the Arctic Circle in the case the war heated up. The Army envisioned an underground highway of tunnels stretching across more than 52,000 square miles of Greenland’s ice sheet. In case of an attack, up to 600 specially designed nuclear missiles would travel through these tunnels to launch points across the island.

However, even the U.S. military couldn’t change the course of vast sheets of moving ice. Despite efforts to maintain the underground tunnels, Greenland’s continuously shifting ice sheet eventually forced the Army to abandon the base in 1966. It was inconceivable that the 115 feet of snow now covering Camp Century could one day melt away, says William Colgan, the glaciologist who approached Jeff Colgan (no relation, amazingly). The base was promptly forgotten for decades—until the Danish government uncovered evidence of the true nature of Camp Century in 1995.

William Colgan stumbled into this arena through an “unusual route.” During its operation, scientists based at Camp Century drilled multiple cores into Greenland’s ice sheet, including one to a depth of more than 4,500 feet. For climate scientists, these kinds of ice cores have become a valuable proxy for reconstructing the Earth’s past climates. William Colgan was studying the Camp Century cores, which cover 13,000 years of climate data, when he heard references to the “surreal stuff” being done at these bases.

Given the controversial history of the base, it came as little surprise that any research into the remains of Camp Century would be a delicate matter at best. When NATO and the Danish government declined to fund the research, William Colgan says, he and a group of young researchers were forced to put together their study as an “evening and weekends project.”

One unexpected effect of climate change, it seems, is that nations can no longer sweep their problems under the rug—even if that rug is Greenland. While the amount of PCBs and radioactive waste that Camp Century will release is small compared to what already exists in the Arctic, the political ramifications of that pollution could be huge. As William Colgan puts it: “We’ve gone from ‘eternity’ to ‘we really need to start thinking about this.’” 

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