That One Time the US Army Attempted to Build a Nuclear Lair in Greenland

As the Cold War heated up, with the Soviet ICBM tests conducted in the 1950s and the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the United States turned to the ice sheets of Greenland for an edge.

Meant to be a “city under the ice,” Camp Century was to be a series of “twenty-one horizontal tunnels spidering through the snow,” according to the University of Vermont, that would eventually be three times the size of Denmark — replete with a movie theater, hot showers, a chapel, a library, chemistry labs and, most importantly, a portable nuclear reactor.

Destined to house nearly 200 residents, the top-secret missile base in northwestern Greenland, far north of the Arctic Circle, was publicly touted as a “remote research community” under the auspices of the Army Polar Research and Development Center.

In reality, the Washington Post writes, it was “a top-secret plan to convert part of the Arctic into a launchpad for nuclear missiles.”

Dubbed “Project Iceworm,” the city nestled under ice layer after ice layer lay less than 3,000 miles from Moscow. During the Cold War, this frigid location offered the U.S. Army a more covert and convenient cover for its medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs).

Professor Nikolaj Petersen of Denmark’s Aarhus University wrote in a 2007 article for the Scandinavian Journal of History that the project was to take advantage of the strategic location of Greenland — midway between the two superpowers — so as to avoid using long-range Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) located in the United States.

Since the 1814 Treaty of Kiel, Denmark has controlled the world’s largest island. Despite the two American air bases on Greenland, the nation bluntly rejected the isle becoming an even bigger pawn in the Cold War, and adopted a nuclear-free policy in 1957.

In 1958, however, the United States received tacit approval from Denmark after being approached by U.S. ambassador Val Petersen with the plans for Iceworm. According to Petersen, Danish Prime Minister H. C. Hansen replied, “You did not submit any concrete plan as to such possible storing, nor did you ask questions as to the attitude of the Danish Government to this item. I do no[t] think that your remarks give rise to any comments from my side.”

U.S. soldiers supplying Camp Century.
(U.S. Army)

The U.S. deemed this as tacit approval, with construction beginning in June of 1959. Despite temperatures as low as -70°F, winds as high as 125 miles per hour and an annual snowfall of more than four feet, the audacious project was completed the following October, according to the Atomic Heritage Foundation,

“The missile force is hidden and elusive,” reads a 1960 planning document. “It is deployed into an extensive cut‐and‐cover tunnel network in which men and missiles are protected from weather and, to a degree, from enemy attack. The deployment is invulnerable to all but massive attacks and even then most of the force can be launched. Concealment and variability of the deployment pattern are exploited to prevent the enemy from targeting the critical elements of the force.”

However, this audacious, $2.71 billion plan didn’t account for one thing: Mother Nature.

It became increasingly clear that building an atomic city under shifting ice sheets was tenuous at best, and the project was abandoned by 1967. The massive underground structure collapsed shortly after.

Despite this rather large Cold War gaffe, the project wasn’t entirely a sunk cost. During the building of Camp Century, U.S. glacier scientist Chester Langway drilled “a 4,560-foot-deep vertical core down through the ice. Each section of ice that came up was packaged and stored, frozen. When the drill finally hit dirt, the scientists worked it down for twelve more feet through mud and rock. Then they stopped,” writes Joshua E. Brown for the University of Vermont Today.

For decades, this layer of ice and rock from Greenland’s core remained untouched — stored in cookie jars — at the bottom of a freezer in Denmark.

Then in 2017, it was rediscovered by Jørgen Peder Steffensen, a professor and curator of the ice core repository at the University of Copenhagen, and glaciologist Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, who were going through the university’s extensive collections of ice cores in preparation for a move to a new freezer.

“Some were oddly labeled ‘Camp Century sub-ice,’” Steffensen told UVM Today. “I never thought about what was in those two boxes.”

“Well, when you see a lot of cookie jars, you think: who the hell put this in here?” He continued. “No, I didn’t know what to make of it. But once we got it out, we picked it up to see these dirty lumps, and I said: what is this now? And all of a sudden it dawned on us: Oh s–t, this is the sediment underneath it. The ‘sub-ice’ is because it’s below the ice. Whoa.”

In October of 2019 the overlooked bits of dirt had their time in the sun as more than 30 scientists from around the world gathered in Vermont to study what the silty ice and frozen sediment might tell us.

The convention discovered that the sediment contained “fossilized leaf and twig fragments, proving that plants had once grown under one of the coldest regions on earth,” writes the Washington Post.

While the United States didn’t get to act out its Bond villain lair fantasies, at the very least, it furthered scientific understandings of the world around us — and below us.

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