Camp Century was an Arctic US military scientific research base in Greenland, located 240 kilometers east of Thule Air Base. When it was first built, Camp Century was publicized as a demonstration for low-cost ice-cap military outposts and a facility for scientific research.
Camp Century was a training camp for Project Iceworm, whose ultimate goal was to establish a vast network of nuclear missile launch sites that could survive a first strike. According to documents declassified in 1996, the missiles were never deployed, and the necessary consent from the Danish government was never sought.
The camp operated from 1959 until 1967. It was powered by a nuclear reactor and consisted of 21 tunnels totaling 9,800 feet (3.0 km). Project Iceworm was canceled after it was realized that the ice sheet was not as stable as previously assessed and that the missile-basing concept was not feasible. Camp Century was later abandoned after the reactor was removed. However, the hazardous waste remains buried under the ice, becoming an environmental risk.
Stable isotope analyses of ice core samples from Camp Century were used to develop climate models. The analysis of soil in the samples indicates that the site was ice-free as recently as 400,000 years ago, indicating a much reduced Greenland ice sheet and, consequently, much higher sea levels.
The Camp Century Climate Monitoring Program has been run by the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland since 2017. Climate variables, snow and ice temperature levels, and ice-penetrating radar surveys of the subsurface debris and contaminant field are all part of the monitoring presence.
According to the US Department of Defense, the purpose of Camp Century was to test various construction techniques under Arctic conditions, investigate practical problems with the PM-2A semi-mobile nuclear reactor, and support scientific experiments on the icecap.
Construction on the camp and the sub-glacial nuclear reactor began without the explicit permission of the Danish government, posing a political quandary for Prime Minister H. C. Hansen.
The camp was operational until 1967 when shifting icecaps made habitation impossible. The camp was later abandoned, and the facility’s remains were buried by icecaps and eventually crushed.
Design and Performance
Camp Century was built as an arctic subsurface camp using the cut-and-cover trenching technique. The camp was laid out in a series of parallel main trenches that housed buildings and other structures. The camp had a design life span of ten years with proper maintenance. It was manned permanently for 5 years before being abandoned after 8 years.
The subsurface camp was well-protected from the elements and equipped with modern bathrooms, dining, and medical facilities. Prefabricated buildings were inside the trenches. The camp had a number of vehicles and plenty of fuel and food storage. The reactor supplied ample power and demonstrated that it could be installed, operated, and removed in such a remote location.
Snow removal to keep the trenches in good condition, as well as sewage disposal, were ongoing issues. The sewage sump was 150 feet away from the closest building and was not initially vented. As a result, after the first year of operation, the odor of sewage became almost unbearable in the surrounding areas. Subsequent sump venting reduced the odor but did not eliminate the condition. In 1962, core samples were taken near the sump and it was discovered that liquid wastes had horizontally permeated up to 170 feet. As a result, odor from the sump affected nearby trenches with sleeping quarters, accelerating trench deformation.
The US Army concluded in October 1965 that subsurface ice camps are feasible and practical, that nuclear power offers significant advantages, and that the wealth of data and experience gained from Camp Century will be invaluable in future designs.
Inside an Abandoned Military Bunker in Greenland
In the northwest of Greenland, near one the northernmost towns in the world, there’s an abandoned secret Nike-Hercules missiles launch site at Thule Air Base. Flickr user ÐøÇ, visited the frozen underground facilities.
The photographer writes:
Rain and snow fall in from vents. The snow will melt in the summer but since the water has nowhere to go, it is slowly filling up the facility, freezing layer by layer. Ice covering the floor is over 3 feet thick and melts very little in the summer.
These are the stunning pictures he managed to take.
Residual Environmental Hazards
When the camp was decommissioned in 1967, the infrastructure and waste were left in the hope that they would be buried forever by the snowfall.
In 2016, a group of scientists assessed the environmental impact and estimated that melting water could release nuclear waste, 200,000 liters of diesel fuel, a significant amount of PCBs, and 24 million liters of untreated sewage into the environment as early as 2090 due to changing weather patterns. Under one climate model, the transition in ice sheet surface mass balance at Camp Century from net accumulation to net ablation is possible within the next 75 years, and the buried wastes could be exposed between 2135 and 2179 after another 44 to 88 years.
A more recent 2021 assessment of Camp Century’s future evolution shows that meltwater never reaches the base, never penetrating more than 1.1 meters. It once again demonstrates that there is no chance of debris and contaminants remobilizing before the year 2100. Actual weather measurements from the Camp Century station have now been used to adjust the projections.
The latter study employs CanEMS2 and RACMO2 climate models that have been calibrated to climate observations at Camp Century. According to William Colgan, the project leader of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland’s Camp Century Climate Monitoring Programme, “Since the amount of annual snow will continue to exceed the annual melting, the mapped debris field will continue to be buried deeper in the Greenland ice sheet. In other words: there is no risk that the debris will come to the surface due to melting before 2100”.