An actual photo of the base, showing tunnel excavation by the Army Corps of Engineers back in 1959. Photo Credit: Elmer Clark, U.S. Army Materiel Command Cold Regions Research & Engineering Laboratory

Back in the early years of the Cold War, America started construction of a secret underground base in Greenland to house nuclear missiles within range of Moscow, kind of like our cold Cuba. In the 1960s we figured out that it wouldn’t work, so we peaced out without telling anyone or removing any of our nuclear waste, now chillin’ under a hundred feet of ice. Ice that, we now know, will soon melt thanks to climate change.

The place is called Camp Century. It’s not too far from our Thule Air Base but it’s not too close to, well, anything else. It’s 124 miles inland from Greenland’s northwestern coast, and it was built in ‘59 under what was then about 25 feet of ice. The idea was to make a base completely under the ice and house nuclear missiles there in secret within striking distance of Moscow, as I said before.


And again, the whole plan was abandoned in 1967 after some years of testing revealed that the ice shifted around too much, and any tunnels we built would move around or crumble. We didn’t ever get around to putting any nuclear missiles up there, but we did bring along the first mobile nuclear generator, and we took it with us when we left the “city under ice.”

We left behind, however, a 53,000 gallons of diesel fuel, about that much waste water, and an undetermined amount of nuclear waste, as a new report from The Guardian explains.

One of Camp Century’s not-at-all-creepy ice tunnels. Photo Credit: Elmer Clark, U.S. Army Materiel Command Cold Regions Research & Engineering Laboratory

The reason why there’s a new report on a half-century old secret nuclear site a couple hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle is because in that half century, we have learned about a thing called ‘climate change.’ Originally we thought that everything about our secret base would be preserved for eternity. We (along with international researchers) now realize that the ice currently entombing our old waste will at some point melt.


Luckily for us, that melting point is a reasonably long time away. Snowfall up there in northern Greenland is greater than snowmelt at the moment and it has been for some time. What was 25 feet of ice covering Camp Century back in 1959 became about 40 feet by the mid-60s when we planned our departure and currently sits at about 114 feet (8m, 12m and 35m, respectively). This won’t last forever, though, and by 2090 we should start seeing the ice melt faster than it’s being replaced, with no exact timeframe expected for horrible and environment-destroying waste exposure.

Unsurprisingly, nobody knows what to do about all of this. America got its access to the site through Denmark, but we weren’t particularly clear about what we were doing up there and Greenland governs itself now, so who even knows if there’s anything binding about responsibility. Beyond that, uh, The Guardian explains that things aren’t wildly clear what situation will look like as climate change melts Camp Century out of hiding:

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.


What’s quite interesting about this, if you remove your sense of dread about the slow and irreversible exposure of some nuclear waste we maybe hoped everyone would forget about, is that there is lots of very explicit recognition of climate change from our United States military, which is nothing new but still heartening to see as always. The Pentagon has acknowledged climate change for years, particularly in terms of security as of late. Here’s what they told The Guardian:

The Pentagon has said it “acknowledges the reality of climate change and the risk it poses” for Greenland, adding that the US government has pledged to “work with the Danish government and the Greenland authorities to settle questions of mutual security”.


Even more interesting is that the initial cover story for Camp Century was that it was there to study construction in the arctic, and in this work, the U.S. government drilled the first ice core samples used to study climate change.

It’s still possible for me to imagine that this base designed to strike fear into our enemies’ hearts will continue to annoy us into doing something good about global warming.

Raphael Orlove is features editor for Jalopnik.

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