The potentially toxic melt of Project Iceworm

From ToxicLeaks

History of Camp Century[edit | edit source]

Sixty years ago, the United States began construction of a military site on Greenland, in what remains to this day a territory of Denmark although it’s now under autonomous administration. The new facility was 150 miles from Thule Air Force Base, the northernmost U.S. military installation just 750 miles from the Arctic Circle, which operates in cooperation with Denmark, Greenland and Canada. Its mission is to provide missile warning and space surveillance, and satellite command and control operations. Thule also is home to scientific research projects including Arctic climate and ice sheet studies with NASA.


Thule is still there, but the nearby Camp Century – the abandoned concept that dates to 1959 – is no more, and that’s the problem in an era of climate change. What began as a secretive Cold War-era nuclear arms project at Camp Century called “Project Iceworm” was shut down in 1967, in part because of the presence of nuclear weapons and the diplomatic concerns of Denmark. The U.S. thought the toxic chemicals and radioactive waste were buried forever, but that was before the Arctic ice started melting.


Camp Century had a population of some 200 personnel at the height of its operation, all of them living and working in tunnels buried beneath the ice. They functioned as an underground city, complete with a theater and library, a surgical hospital, a chapel and barbershop, all entombed in giant tunnels cut into the ice. So was the nuclear reactor that powered the labs, communication center, housing and more, all made from prefabricated buildings nested into tunnels as long as 1100 feet, and 26 feet high and wide.

It was “Project Iceworm” that was supposed to give the U.S. military a site for 600 nuclear missiles with closer range to the former Soviet Union, which was the real point of Camp Century. The project’s failure wasn’t just because of Denmark though: The U.S. didn’t expect the physical instability of the ice either.


“Camp Century is a symbol of man’s unceasing struggle to conquer his environment,” says the narrator in a 1960 declassified U.S. Army film about the project. It’s turned out to be the other way around on a dangerously warming planet where rising seas are threatening to expose the toxic waste left behind.

Camp Century and climate change[edit | edit source]

A 2016 paper published in Geophysical Research Letters details the scope of the problem a half-century after Project Iceworm was abandoned. It’s written by an international team that includes NASA experts, a Danish climate scientist, and Swiss, Canadian and American geologists and environmental scientists.


“The base was abandoned with minimal decommissioning, as engineering design of the era assumed that the base would be ‘preserved for eternity’ by perpetual snowfall,” the authors explained. Though it was originally built in a dry-snow zone, climate change has evolved in ways the U.S. never anticipated, and that’s meant that the Camp Century tunnels and their contents are subject to ice-melt conditions. By the end of next century – not taking into consideration new science on more rapid Arctic ice melt – the melt will likely reach the buried military installation assuming a business-as-usual climate scenario. Camp Century is only one of five abandoned and unremediated ice sheet bases in the vicinity of Thule.


Overall, the researchers said the site contains an estimated 20,000 liters of chemical waste, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) linked to cancer. There are 24 million liters of sewage and other biological waste. Radiological waste from the nuclear power plant was dumped in an unlined sump pit, and there are roughly 10,000 tons of waste from the railway, buildings and other material structures. Diesel fuel was stored in tanks, but it’s likely that those tanks have ruptured in the intervening years.

Project Iceworm and Denmark’s diplomatic crisis[edit | edit source]

There are a few questions about Camp Century that remain, including what role Denmark has as a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) partner signing the agreement for Greenland’s defense. The 2016 report authors reviewed U.S. documents that refer to Denmark’s understanding that, for example, there was radioactive waste that needed to be managed. The Danish parliament never published documents about the project until the country conducted an investigation in 1997, and one Danish expert at Arhaus University said it was difficult to get information about the nuclear power plant and routine operations.


If the presence of the 600 nuclear missiles was a deal-breaker for the Danes in the past, as some sources note, it’s the future of Camp Century that raises concern. “There appears to be substantial ambiguity surrounding the political and legal liability associated with mitigating the potential remobilization of its pollutants,” the paper authors said. “Interests likely differ across NATO members, particularly Denmark, the U.S. and Canada, partly because of their distinct levels of historical participation and their future potential for pollutant exposure.”


That’s true of Camp Century, they said, but the melting ice of failed Project Iceworm also highlights how climate change is “likely to amplify political disputes associated with abandoned wastes in a variety of settings.” In this case, it happens to be Greenland and involves three other nations, but in the context of a planet facing environmental catastrophe, such scenarios – between governments and across generational timelines – have the potential to add to conflicts already exacerbated on a warming planet. That’s leading experts to call for new strategies to deal with the diplomatic demands of climate change.