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The City Under The Ice

A look inside the incredible history of the Cold War's Camp Century and the toxic problem it now represents.

Built in 1959 and decommissioned in 1967, Camp Century was built into the Greenland Ice Shelf as a top secret Cold War military base with dual missions.

The 200-soldier installation was known as “the city under the ice” and featured 21 steel-arch covered trenches containing prefabricated buildings that served as everything from barracks to a theatre and even a barber shop. The entire compound was powered by a portable nuclear reactor.

Officially, personnel tested Artic construction techniques and conducted research on the ice shelf core.

Strategically, this location marked the shortest route between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. So the base not only reinforced the U.S. partnership with Denmark in defending Greenland, but also provided ideal cover for testing the feasibility of building launch sites close enough to reach Russia.

Although never built, a larger camp based off Camp Century would have housed a 2,500-mile tunnel system underneath the ice capable of deploying up to 600 nuclear missiles. Termed Project Iceworm, the plan was later rejected by the Joint Chiefs and Camp Century was decommissioned.

The Army Corps of Engineers removed the nuclear reaction chamber but left the camp's infrastructure and all its waste behind, assuming the ice sheet would secure it forever.

I think you know what comes next.

Although about 115’ of snow now cover the camp, a new study shows that the left-over waste stretches out over a space equal to about 100 football fields – containing 53,000 gallons of diesel fuel, numerous toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and 63,000 gallons of waste water, including sewage and radioactive coolant.

By 2090, rates of ice loss could exceed gains from snowfall. Within a century, continued melting could begin releasing the remaining waste into the ocean.

And you thought that yellow snow courtesy of the neighbor’s dog was gross.

Further complicating matters is figuring out who is responsible for the clean-up. Camp Century was a U.S. base built on Danish soil. But now Greenland is self-governing.

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