Secret U.S. Nuclear Base Threatened by Melting Ice


In the 1960s, the U.S. built a secret nuclear facility under Greenland's ice cap. In less than a century, climate change will cause enough warming in Greenland to expose it to the world.

The story begins in the 1950s. The United States and then Soviet Union had entered the Cold War. Both sides maneuvered to prevent the other from gaining an advantage. Those tactics included installing nuclear weapons in various locations around the globe. The rest of the world watched with growing anxiety as tensions escalated.

In the late 1950s, U.S. representatives contacted Danish officials about the possibility of creating a scientific research center under the ice cap in Greenland, which was largely under Denmark's control at the time. The two governments came to an agreement, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to excavate a site for what would come to be known as Camp Century.

The engineers built the facility 26 feet (8 meters) beneath the surface of the ice. Scientists actually conducted work there. Famous paleoclimatologist Willi Dansgaard worked at Camp Century and examined ice cores. Dansgaard's work showed that ice cores can tell us about climate trends across much of Earth's history.

But the scientific center was a cover. The real goal was to build a military nuclear installation under the ice codenamed Project Iceworm. Greenland's geographic position meant that the U.S. would be able to use mid-range ballistic missiles (600 were proposed) and reach Moscow if necessary. It would give the U.S. a big advantage over the Soviets.

To that end, the engineers built nearly 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) of tunnels under the ice. A nuclear reactor provided electricity. The base even had a few amenities, like a shop and a movie theater. But it was the tunnels that were most important. The engineers wanted to install a subterranean railway that could transport missiles and even move launch sites around under the ice.

By the mid-1960s, plans changed. The engineers noted that surface ice shifted too frequently for a practical nuclear launch facility. In 1967, the U.S. abandoned the facility. The departing staff powered down the nuclear plant and removed the generator. They pretty much left everything else behind, including hazardous materials like biological, chemical and nuclear waste.

Flash-forward to today and climatologists warn that warming trends in the region mean that, eventually, Project Iceworm will be exposed completely. It will take some time. After all, over the years, new ice has formed on top of the base. But trends show that it won't be long before the amount of ice melting each year is greater than the amount accumulating. The scientists say that if we do not take action to reduce climate change, by 2090 Iceworm will no longer have ice around it.

Environmentalists are worried that the hazardous materials left behind will cause environmental damage, particularly should they leak into the ocean. Neither the Danish nor the U.S. governments have stepped up to take the lead on handling the problem. If we let that matter go unhandled, the scientists say we'll end up with a "multinational, multi-generational" problem that will put a strain on international relationships.