Climate change may uncover a Cold War project left beneath the Arctic ice for generations.
During the Cold War, the U.S. planned to build a secret nuclear launch site in the Arctic. From there, they would be able to destroy Soviet targets at a moment’s notice. This project, codenamed "Iceworm," was never finished. The military abandoned it after a few years and left it buried under layers of ice. But now a warming climate threatens to expose the site. Contaminants left behind decades ago could have a serious impact on the environment.
In 1959, the U.S. Army sent the Corps of Engineers to Greenland to build an entire city under the ice. This city, called Camp Century, could house around 200 soldiers. It had its own nuclear power plant, hospital, movie theater and chapel. The cover story was that Camp Century was a polar research station, and, indeed, this was somewhat true. Scientists at the camp did, in fact, drill the very first ice core for studying the earth’s climate. But, the “city under ice” was actually meant to store up to 600 nuclear missiles. These missiles would travel on railcars through tunnels in the ice to specific launch sites across Greenland. The Army planned to have this network of tunnels stretch across more than 52,000 square miles of ice.
The military rejected Project Iceworm, and Camp Century was ultimately abandoned in 1967. In part, this was because the constant movement of Greenland’s ice threatened to damage the site. The U.S. Army left behind about 9,200 tons of physical material and 53,000 gallons of diesel fuel. They also left radioactive waste and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are cancer-causing toxins used in paints and fluids.
The engineers who constructed Camp Century believed that the ice would continue to accumulate and bury the waste left behind deeper and deeper. However, a recent study has shown that as early as 2090, ice loss in the area will be greater than snowfall. Within another 100 years, the toxic waste left at Camp Century could be exposed to the elements. Even before that, though, the melting ice could trickle down and carry the buried radioactive waste out into the ocean. It could also poison an important marine hunting ground for the Inuit communities of Greenland.
This wouldn’t be the first time that the U.S. has polluted Greenland. In 1968, a US B-52 bomber carrying four hydrogen bombs crashed onto the island, spreading radioactive contaminants over a wide area. The U.S. and Denmark quickly cleaned up the mess, but some studies have found that there is still pollution to this day.
Whose Responsibility is it?
The exposure of Camp Century could have unique political ramifications. There is no clear agreement on who is responsible for cleaning up the mess. In a 1951 agreement, Denmark allowed the U.S. to build Camp Century along with other military bases on its territory of Greenland. It is unclear how much Denmark knew about Project Iceworm. To make matters more complicated, Greenland gained partial sovereignty from Denmark in 1979. Although they were not a part of the agreement, the responsibility for clean-up may fall on them.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Builds Camp Century
There are several ways to address the environmental risk posed by this abandoned Cold War site. Researching more on climate change and how it will affect the melting ice sheets would be a good first step. Mitigating the effects of climate change could slow down the ice melt and delay the exposure of the toxic waste. But if climate change continues unabated, the contaminants may become an issue sooner than expected.
Project Iceworm started off as a covert operation meant to give the U.S. a leg up in the Cold War. When it was abandoned, those that worked there thought that its secrets would remain hidden in the ice forever. They did not account for climate change. More than a century after the cancellation of Project Iceworm, the toxins buried underneath the ice in Greenland may rise to the surface. Future generations will need to deal with the remnants of a toxic nuclear weapons legacy.