The US army engineering corps excavated Camp Century in 1959 around 200km (124 miles) from the coast of Greenland, which was then a county of Denmark.
Powered, remarkably, by the world’s first mobile nuclear generator and known as “the city under the ice”, the camp’s three-kilometre network of tunnels, eight metres beneath the ice, housed laboratories, a shop, a hospital, a cinema, a chapel and accommodation for as many as 200 soldiers.
Its personnel were officially stationed there to test Arctic construction methods and carry out research. Scientists based at the camp did, indeed, drill the first ice core samples ever used to study the earth’s climate, obtaining data still cited today, according to William Colgan, a climate and glacier scientist from the Lassonde school of engineering at Toronto’s York University, and the lead author of the study.
In reality, the camp served as cover for something altogether different – a project so immense and so secret that not even the Danish government was informed of its existence.
“They thought it would never be exposed,” said Colgan. “Back then, in the 60s, the term global warming had not even been coined. But the climate is changing, and the question now is whether what’s down there is going to stay down there.”
The study suggests it is not.
Project Iceworm, presented to the US chiefs of staff in 1960, aimed to use Camp Century’s frozen tunnels to test the feasibility of a huge launch site under the ice, close enough to fire nuclear missiles directly at the Soviet Union.
At the height of the cold war, as the US and the USSR were engaged in a terrifying standoff over the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba, the US army was considering the construction of a vast subterranean extension of Camp Century.
A system of about 4,000 kilometres of icy underground tunnels and chambers extending over an area around three times the size of Denmark were to have housed 600 ballistic missiles in clusters six kilometres apart, trained on Moscow and its satellites.
Eventually the engineers realised Iceworm would not work. The constantly moving ice was too unstable and would have deformed and perhaps even collapsed the tunnels.
From 1964 Camp Century was used only intermittently, and three years later it was abandoned altogether, the departing soldiers taking the reaction chamber of the nuclear generator with them.
They left the rest of the camp’s infrastructure – and its biological, chemical and radioactive waste – where it was, on the assumption it would be “preserved for eternity” by the perpetually accumulating snow and ice.
Our estimate is that by 2090, the exposure will be irreversible. It could happen sooner if the magnitude of climate change accelerates.”
Once that starts to happen, the question of who is responsible for the clear-up – already the subject of discussion – will become more pressing, the report said, presenting “an entirely new form of political dispute resulting from climate change”.
With no established agreement on the question, the report says the “multinational, multi-generational” problem posed by Camp Century and its waste could become a source of tension between the US, Greenland and Denmark.