Written by Olivier Guiberteau
Buried beneath the ice in the far northwest of the brutal immensity that is Greenland, lies the remains of a United States military research facility named Camp Century.
Between 1959 and 1967, the camp, which consisted of 21 tunnels with a total length of 3.0 km (1.8 miles), studied ice core samples, tested various construction techniques under Arctic conditions and also operated as a training ground to see how the facility’s PM-2A semi-mobile nuclear reactor operated in such an environment.
Camp Century was an impressive endeavour in its own right, but what the Danish government, which administers Greenland, was told about the research base was only part of the story.
The missing part of this Cold War tale did not fully come to light until 1997 when the Danish Foreign Policy Institute began delving into the use and storage of nuclear weapons in Greenland – and what they uncovered was astonishing.
Not only did it lead to serious questions being asked about the 1968 B-52 crash in which an aircraft carrying four B28FI thermonuclear bombs smashed into the Greenland ice shelf, it eventually led to even greater revelations. Camp Century had been a cover all along for a United States plan to insert medium-range ballistic missiles beneath the ice in Greenland that could be used against the Soviet Union should the occasion present itself. It never actually happened, but the darkly devious plot named Project Iceworm remains one of the strangest and most ambitious stories to emerge from the Cold War.
A Chilling World
The 1950s saw the situation between the United States and the Soviet Union gradually deteriorate. The Berlin Blockade between 1948 and 1949, in which the Soviet Union barred entry to the American, British and French sectors of the German capital, had already soured relations considerably. The testing of the first Soviet nuclear bomb on 29th August 1949, at Semipalatinsk Test Site in Kazakhstan, meant that the world entered the new decade with a looming sense of danger hanging over it, as the two nuclear powers, ideologically opposed in almost every way, began to eye each other with barely disguised mistrust.
As technology progressed, and more nuclear weapons were added, both the United States and the Soviet Union sought to disperse their fearsome weaponry as much as they could. During the 1950s, nuclear weapons were placed across the United States in more than half of its states, while over in the Soviet Union exactly the same was done, with tactical nuclear weapons placed in all 15 Soviet Republics, with strategic nuclear weapons limited to Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Russia itself.
This rush to disperse nuclear weapons was certainly not unfounded. In theory, the more weapons you had spread over a wider area, meant your chances of being able to effectively retaliate in the event of a nuclear attack were significantly higher. And often it was a case of getting them as close to the enemy as you possibly could without causing an international incident.
Greenland & Thule Air Base
While the U.S state of Alaska and Russia are just 88 km (55 miles) apart, the continental U.S and the former Soviet Union are much further – but that’s only when we look at the world in 2D form. When you look at a globe you can see that the shortest path between the two countries is not from East to West, but rather directly over the Arctic to the north.
With this in mind, the region became a vital area during the Cold War and one where the United States already had a foothold. When Denmark fell to the Nazis during World War II, Henrik Kauffmann, Danish Ambassador to the United States, formerly asked the Americans, reportedly in the name of the Danish king, to protect Danish colonies in any way necessary, which essentially meant the colossal 2.166 million km² (836,000 m²) island with the hugely misleading name, Greenland.
Much to the fury of the protectorate government in Denmark, which had chosen a far cosier relationship with the Nazis than many conquered nations, the U.S began installing coast guard, weather and radio stations in Greenland in the summer of 1941. By the end of the war, there were no less than 14 different U.S installations in the area, including Bluie West Six, a fairly insignificant weather and radio station in the far northwest of Greenland.
When the war ended and Denmark emerged from Nazi rule, its leaders did what they could to gain control of the U.S stations in Greenland, but the Americans dragged their feet with heavy reluctance, no doubt keenly aware of their strategic importance.
In 1949, Denmark joined Nato and efforts to remove U.S bases all but disappeared. This period also saw the expansion and modernisation of U.S overseas bases, and suddenly Bluie West Six, which had had a gravel airstrip installed just after the war, became hugely important. Slowly, and very quietly, Bluie West Six was transformed into the Thule Air Force base under a secret operation codenamed Operation Blue Jay which only became public in 1952 after a French cultural anthropologist and geographer Jean Malaurie and his Inuit friend Kutikitsoq stumbled upon the secret facility while returning from an expedition to the North Pole.
Eventually established as a Strategic Air Command installation, the Thule Air Force base was used as a dispersal location for U.S operations, while also acting as the perfect place to test weaponry in extreme weather conditions. In 1954, the U.S completed the Globecom Tower at the base, a mast radiator tower that reached 378.25 metres (1,240.98 ft) – making it the third-highest structure on Earth at the time and the tallest outside of the United States. It was clear that the Americans were here to stay.
Now, considering we’ve already let Camp Century’s devious ulterior motive out of the bag, it can be difficult to talk about this project without plenty of scepticism. We now know that the much-publicised reason for building Camp Century – to study ice samples and test equipment in the Arctic – was not quite the whole story. And yet ice samples were certainly taken and went on to prove invaluable in creating climate models that were able to paint a picture of a quite remarkable, ice-free Greenland 400,000 years ago.
However, considering Camp Century was built without the permission of the Danish government and might well have been the location of secret Arctic nuclear weapons if things had gone a little differently, it’s difficult to look at the scientific research done there as much more than a wonderfully elaborate cover story.
Scouting for Camp Century, so-called because it was built 160 km (100 miles) from the edge of the Greenland ice shelf, began in May 1959, with the impossibly difficult construction finishing within two years.
And when I say difficult, that’s very much an understatement. This area sees temperatures as low as -55°C (-70°F), winds as high as 200km per hour (125 miles per hour), and an annual snowfall of more than 1.5 metres (4 ft.) The remoteness was also an enormous factor, with most of the mechanical equipment needing to be hauled to the location on bobsleds at a rather sedate 3.2 km/h (2 mph), meaning that the 241 km (150-mile) distance to the Thule Air Force base took roughly 70 hours.
What was built was a subsurface camp consisting of a series of parallel trenches created using the cut-and-cover trenching technique. These trenches were covered with steel arches and then topped with snow. The 26 different trenches varied in length with a combined distance of 3.2 km (2 miles). The longest trench, named Main Street, ran to 330 metres (1100 ft) in length with a height and width of 8 metres (26 ft) and was situated at the centre of the complex.
Prefabricated buildings were then placed inside the trenches and served as dormitories, a mess hall, bathrooms, kitchens, a hospital, barbershop, chapel and operation command, all of which housed up to 200 servicemen at its peak.
Camp Century came with insulated heated piping along with a well providing 37,850 litres (10,000 gallons) of freshwater daily. This was in addition to the PM-2A semi-mobile nuclear reactor, the first of its kind ever to be deployed, which powered the base. It was an enormous complex, the likes of which have never really been replicated, and yet, it was but a fraction of what was planned.
Details of Project Iceworm didn’t fully come to light until 1997 after the Danish government began to dig into the dramatic Thule air crash that occurred in 1968 – and more on that later. What eventually emerged was staggering in ambition.
In 1960, the U.S commissioned a feasibility study titled “Strategic Value of the Greenland Icecap” in which it laid out the theoretical plans to build a vast complex beneath the ice that would have covered an area measuring 130,000 km² (52,000 m²), roughly three times the size of Denmark and just slightly smaller than the state of New York.
This massive cavernous area would have housed 600 “Iceman” missiles, a modified version of the Minuteman ICBM with a range of 5,310 km (3,300 miles.) There were also 60 separate launch centres planned, located 6.4 km (4 miles) apart, with the entire bases housing as many as 11,000 soldiers.
Now, I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that, considering the location and difficulty of building the infinitely smaller Camp Century, this was a plan of breathtaking proportions.
But of course, it was not to be. Camp Century was plagued with problems, ranging from difficulties resupplying the base to issues with its sewage disposal and the constant need to maintain the trenches.
Then we come to the ice which, despite its appearance as solid and dependable, is anything but. By 1962, the constantly moving ice had caused many of the tunnels to narrow considerably which saw the ceiling of the reactor room within Camp Century drop alarmingly requiring it to be raised a further 1.5 metres (5ft).
In 1963, after a routine reactor shutdown, U.S authorities decided to run Camp Century as a summer-only facility and the PM-2A was never used again. The base reverted to using a traditional diesel power planet and the nuclear reactor, which official reports appear to suggest had worked well, was removed soon after in 1964.
Just two years later, Camp Century closed for good, and while much was removed and eventually shipped back to the United States, the structure itself, with its many trenches and leftover toxic chemicals was effectively abandoned and buried beneath the ice.
The Thule Affair
The story of Camp Century and the massively, and overly ambitious Project Iceworm isn’t quite done yet and we’ll be coming back to it towards the end of the video, because just two years after Camp Century closed, Greenland came within a whisker of nuclear disaster.
On 21st January 1968, a B-52, operating as part of the USAF Strategic Air Command ‘Chrome Dome’ which required bombers to be in the air at all times in case of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union, took off from the Plattsburgh Air Force Base in New York and headed North.
The aircraft was carrying a healthy supply of four B28FI thermonuclear bombs, each with a strength of around 1,400 kilotons, nearly 100 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima when a cabin fire erupted six hours into the flight with the B-52 140 km (90 miles) south of Thule Air Base. Later the cause of the fire was blamed on one of the crew members stuffing seat cushions in front of a heating vent which eventually set ablaze.
Captain John Haug immediately radioed the base to request an emergency landing but it soon became clear that any chance of bringing the aircraft down safely had come and gone. Once over Greenland, Haug gave the order to bail out, with all but one of the aircraft’s seven crew members surviving the fall.
The B-52, with enough weaponry on board to obliterate a large section of the planet, hurtled on and eventually slammed into North Star Bay – around 12.1 km (7.5 miles) west of Thule Air Base. The conventional explosives within all four nuclear bombs detonated, spreading radioactive material over a wide area, in a similar manner to a dirty bomb. Only the weapons’ weak link, a safety mechanism inside the bombs, prevented their full detonation and shortly after the U.S Air Force issued its most chilling coded phrase used only when a nuclear weapon has either been lost, stolen or fired by accident – Broken Arrow.
Reconnaissance flights were immediately scrambled to assess the situation and it’s probably fair to say that there were a few hearts in mouths as U.S officials faced the uncomfortable prospect of massive nuclear contamination on foreign soil.
After consulting with their Danish partners, who no doubt were seething since Greenland had been designated a nuclear-free zone based on a policy put in place in 1957, an enormous clean-up operation, known as Project Crested Ice soon began.
Considering the earth-shaking drama that comes with losing nuclear weapons, it has happened many more times than you might believe – or might want to believe. The United States has admitted to 32 Broken Arrow incidents since 1950, a quite astonishing figure considering that just one of these bombs could well have killed hundreds of thousands, if not millions. The Soviet Union was always far less opaque with its lost nuclear weapons, but if we take the numerous mysterious Soviet submarine disappearances during the Cold War and the shockingly disorganised break up of the USSR in which many nuclear weapons simply disappeared, we can probably place these two forgetful superpower buffoons on an even keel.
But while nuclear retrieval and clean up had already occurred several times, never in a place quite as inhospitable as Greenland during the winter, where daily temperatures averaged -40C (-40F) and sunlight was a distant memory.
The remains of the B-52 and its terrifying arsenal had been scattered over an area measuring 1.6 km (1-mile) by 4.8 km (3-mile) and had even burned a hole through the ice that reached down to the water. A blackened scar was clearly visible, the result of the JP-4 aviation fuel onboard, but that was the least of the cleanup crew’s worries. Officials quickly found that the crash site was heavily contaminated with plutonium, uranium, americium and tritium – with half-lives that ranged from a do-able 14 years for Plutonium-241, to the difficult to get your head around because it’s roughly the same as the age as the Earth, 4.5 billion years for the Uranium-238.
The cleanup operation lasted 9 months in which 2.1 million litres (550,000 US gallons) of contaminated liquid and material were removed from Greenland and shipped to the United States for disposal. It wasn’t a cheap operation either, with the final cost coming in at $9.4 million ($73.3 million in 2022), but at least they managed to collect all of the hazardous material and the various nuclear bomb components that lay scattered across the area – or did they.
Buried Beneath the Ice
American assertions at the time were that all four bombs and their various components had been recovered from Greenland, but in the late 1980s and again in the early 2000s, reports surfaced in the Danish media that appeared to contradict the official narrative. This led the Danish government to commission the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) to examine the case further and also delve a little deeper into the murky situation relating to other nuclear weapons that had been placed in Greenland without the official consent of the government, or at least without the general knowledge of the public.
In 1997, the released report stated that yes the United States had stored nuclear weapons on Greenland up until 1965 and had on several occasions flown above its snowy expanse carrying nuclear bombs. But that was just the nuclear Hors d’Oeuvre. It was also in this report that details of Project Iceworm first emerged, much to the chagrin of the Danish people. It was certainly an unpleasant revelation, but one that was very much in the past. In the following decade, however, stories once again emerged that pointed to a much more present-day danger.
In 2008, using the United States Freedom of Information Act to gather their facts, the BBC released a story that ruptured what had been a quietly healing rumour.
It stated that only three of the weapons had ever been recovered, with the fourth remaining mysteriously lost, even after the U.S sent a Star III mini-submarine under the ice in August 1968 to search for it. The following year, the DIIS released its own findings on the incident in which it claimed that all four had in fact been recovered, directly contradicting the BBC report. Whether there has been some kind of cover-up, poor information or outright lies we can’t be sure, but this is a niggling issue that refuses to go away.
And to make things worse there remains another looming problem. Research has suggested that when the U.S abandoned Camp Century, it left behind roughly 190,000 litres (50,000 gallons) of diesel fuel and a large but unknown quantity of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs,) a highly carcinogenic chemical compound that had been commonly used in industrial and consumer products until it was banned by the United States in 1978. Add in the reported 24 million litres (6.3 million gallons) of untreated sewage, and the unknown amount of radioactive coolant and you have a potentially lethal cocktail buried under the ice.
As the ice melts faster and faster as a result of climate change, the remains of Camp Century are not only moving closer to the surface but also to the edge of Greenland’s ice shelf, with the base having already shifted by 232 metres (253 yards) west from where it used to be.
It’s unclear what actions might be planned here and with what kind of timescale, but it’s likely that within 50–70 years, a major clean up operation will once again be needed on Greenland’s vast icy lands.
Project Iceworm may not have even happened in the end, but the consequences of the preliminary base that was built are likely to haunt Greenland long after most watching this video are long gone.