Another experimental audio article: The story of Camp Century: A "nuclear city" under the Greenland ice sheet that was not entirely what it seemed.
This piece was intended primarily as an audio/podcast experience. You can listen by clicking 'Narrate' above, and/or read the transcript below.
ALAN: This is Damn Interesting.
In 1946, the United States sent a political delegation to the kingdom of Denmark. Their objective: acquire the island of Greenland.
Greenland is perhaps best known as the land mass with the most misleading name in history. Greenland is very much not green. The large island lies north of Canada near the North Pole, so most of the land is caked in permanent ice all year long, thousands of feet thick. It is almost entirely frozen and inhospitable. As you may know, the name Greenland was specifically designed to draw in gullible settlers. As the story goes, in 982 AD an Icelander named Erik the Red was exiled due to “some killings,” so he and his entourage sailed northwest where there were rumored to be unclaimed lands. They named their new settlement Greenland in hopes of tempting other Nordic settlers to sail right on past Iceland in favor of these allegedly greener shores. The strategy was only modestly successful.
Ownership of the island was ambiguous for centuries, but in 1933 the Permanent Court of International Justice, a body which no longer exists, decided to grant official control of Greenland to Denmark, which would govern the island from 3000 km away, which takes us back to the US delegation offering to buy Greenland in the 1940s. Despite the island’s cold and hostile demeanor, the US was prepared to pay $100,000,000, about $1.2 billion in today’s dollars. The delegation explained that the US wanted to establish an airbase there. The Army also wanted access to a permanent ice sheet in order to develop techniques for building structures on and under the ice and to train troops in polar warfare. This was the Cold War after all. The kingdom of Denmark refused to sell, but they felt they owed America a debt of gratitude for the then recent World War. During the war, German forces had occasionally dropped by, slipped ashore, and surreptitiously installed weather stations, and every time a Greenlandic dog sled patrol spotted one, they could count on the Americans to come demolish these unauthorized Nazi meteorological apparatuses.
So the Danish government granted the Americans permission to establish their airbase and they granted permission for US Army engineers to find some flat, remote, desolate area of the ice sheet and use it to experiment with their ice construction. That seemed like a reasonable compromise. So the Army engineers descended upon Greenland and launched two major construction projects: they built Thule Air Base near the western coast and 150 miles inland from there, they started another project codenamed Camp Century. The official US War Office film entitled “Research and Development Progress Report #6” describes this project.
[The following clip from the film is played.]
FILM NARRATOR: “On the top of the world, below the surface of the giant ice cap, a city is buried. Today on the island of Greenland, as part of man’s continuing efforts to master the secrets of survival in the Arctic, the United States Army has established an unprecedented nuclear powered research center. Camp Century is buried below the surface of this ice cap. Beneath it, the ice descends for 6,000 feet. In this remote setting, less than 800 miles from the North Pole, Camp Century is a symbol of man’s unceasing goal to conquer his environment, to increase his ability to live and fight if necessary under polar conditions. This is the story of Camp Century: the city under ice.”
ALAN: For an official US War Office progress report, this film is conspicuously…whimsical. It has a dramatic soundtrack, theatrical tension, and throughout the film the narrator describes the antics of a contraband Husky puppy named Muckluck causing adorable mischief. Yet these scenes are adjacent to other scenes where it shows details of construction techniques and of the base’s top secret nuclear facilities. It’s not entirely clear whether the audience was intended to be elementary students, government bureaucrats, or somewhere in between.
[More clips from the film are played, quoted below.]
FILM NARRATOR: “Muckluck, a three month old Eskimo sled dog, went along as camp mascot, strictly against regulations.”
“We got to work immediately cutting trenches. This snow milling machine, a Peter Plow, was our pride and joy. Manufactured in Switzerland, it could handle up to 1,200 cubic yards of snow an hour. Designed to clear roads in the Alps, it was ideal for our purpose, being capable of making extremely precise cuts.”
“Camp Century was starting to grow, and so was Muckluck.”
“Plans for the camp had been developed months in advance. The basic concept was simple: a system of 23 trenches would be cut into the ice cap and then covered with steel arches and snow. Branching off the main communication trench would be a series of lateral trenches housing complete research, laboratory, and test facilities, modern living quarters and recreation areas, and a complex of support facilities. Since transporting great quantities of Diesel fuel over vast Arctic wastes was impractical, we would install a nuclear power plant.”
ALAN: The film shows Army engineers assembling pre-fabricated buildings in dark, deep, trapezoidal ice chambers that look exactly like the Rebel ice base on Hoth. As each tunnel is completed, the end of it is walled in with bricks of snow. The centerpiece of the whole facility, and of the film itself, is a brand new piece of technology: a “portable” nuclear reactor. The newfangled bus-sized contraption would supply the remote research center with electricity. Camp Century was, in essence, an enormous nuclear powered snow fort. Here the film shows strapping Norman Rockwell-esque soldiers in shirt sleeves and rubber gloves manhandling the rods to assemble the reactor core.
[Another clip from the film is transcribed below.]
FILM NARRATOR: “The next phase was to be the activation of the nuclear power plant. Wearing the white safety hat is Captain Jim Barnett, in charge of this operation, who will tell you about this critical phase.”
JIM BARNETT: “We took every precaution in the book and some that weren’t there to make sure that this would work right the first time. When the entire system had been carefully tested, it was put into operation. We were then ready to begin loading the reactor core. This gradual activation of the pile took almost nine hours. In this tense atmosphere we changed crews twice. Then the control rods were gradually withdrawn until the reactor went critical at 6:52 AM.”
PA ANNOUNCEMENT: “Now hear this, with all five control rods withdrawn 6.24 inches PM2A went critical at 0652 hours.”
ALAN: It’s not clear whether the Danish government was aware that the US had planned to install an actual nuclear reactor into their ice sheet. Upon its completion, Camp Century consisted of almost two miles of ice tunnels. Up to 200 people could live there at a time with access to a state of the art hospital, a theater, a church, and other modern conveniences. The camp included a comprehensive plumbing and sewage system, it generated its own electricity, and fresh water was produced onsite by drilling wells into the ice with high pressure steam hoses.
[Another film clip plays. It is transcribed below.]
FILM NARRATOR: “Today Camp Century is being operated as a year-round Arctic research center. The men who built the camp have long since been replaced by military and civilian scientists from the Polar Research and Development Program. As part of man’s efforts to probe deeper and deeper into the secrets of the universe, an elaborate program of tests and experiments is being carried out. At this very moment, somewhere men from Camp Century are at work: within the city itself, or out on the ice cap. Only Muckluck remains from the original contingent.”
ALAN: Despite the successes in developing ice construction techniques, Camp Century was ultimately undone by the discovery that the Greenland ice cap was not quite the stable, unchanging thing it had seemed to be. It wasn’t until the base was complete that Army engineers began to observe that the ice slowly and unevenly migrated year to year. At first this was not very noticeable, but after several summers the shift began to twist and deform the tunnels and everything inside of them. It was clear that merely reenforcing the tunnels would not be sufficient to combat such a massive force, so the engineers concluded that Greenland’s ice was just too unstable for a permanent base. The experiment was over. The US Army removed the nuclear reactor in 1964 and they totally abandoned the base two years after that. The ice slowly crushed and smothered Camp Century, and whatever remains of the base is entombed under hundreds of feet of ice.
But that’s not quite the end of the story. Camp Century was not what it seemed.
In 1968, just two years after Camp Century was abandoned, a US B-52 nuclear bomber was flying somewhere near Greenland when it declared and emergency due to a fire in the cabin. Despite their best efforts, the crew was unable to bring the flames under control. They lost electrical systems and the cockpit filled with thick, black, choking, blinding smoke. Realizing that his plane was too disabled to land, the captain decided to fly the bomber toward Thule Air Base. When the crew saw the lights of the base directly below the aircraft, the captain ordered his crew to eject. The plane flew off, pilotless, off toward the dark, frozen horizon. It had four armed nuclear warheads on board.
When an atomic bomb is deliberately detonated, precision shape charges inside explode in such a way that they press the nuclear material rapidly into a critical mass. Both the timing and force are critical to achieve that trademark mushroom cloud “clean” nuclear detonation. When a nuclear weapon experiences severe blunt trauma, such as an airplane crash, these shape charged tend to explode in a decidedly non-precision manner, which scatters most of the non-fissile material rather than blowing it up. It becomes, in essence, a dirty bomb, and that’s exactly what happened when the abandoned B-52 finally fell out of the sky.
About 13 squares of remote Greenland ice was seriously contaminated by the resulting explosions. The clean up effort began immediately. In an era when any endeavor needed a project name, this effort was known formally as Project Crested Ice, but it was known informally as Dr. Freezelove. It involves hundreds of American, Danish, and Greenlandic workers who brought in heavy machinery to scrape off the top layer of contaminated ice, pack it into crates, and ship it back to the US. When clean up efforts were wrapped up nine months later, it was not entirely clear whether all of the material from all four nuclear weapons was successfully recovered. Some of the investigators suspected that at least one of the weapons had penetrated clear through the ice. If so, it remains there in the ice still today, but that is a very controversial theory.
Regardless, the citizens of Denmark were outraged to learn that the US had been flying nuclear weapons over Greenland. Denmark had a strict policy of being a nuclear free zone, but Danish officials assured the citizenry that the only reason the nuclear bomber entered Greenland airspace was due to the emergency, and that remained the official story for about 30 years. But then, in the mid-1990s, the United States de-classified reams of documents regarding their military activities in Greenland in the 1960s. Danish investigators acquired copies of these documents to see if they might confirm or deny the official story of the B-52 crash and shed any other light on American atomic activity in Greenland. These showed that not only was the US routinely flying nuclear weapons over Greenland in the 1960s, but they were also storing nuclear weapons at Thule Air Base, contrary to their public statements. Even worse, it appeared that Danish officials at the time had known exactly what the US was doing and had lied to their citizens about it. The subsequent scandal would come to be known in Denmark as Thule-gate.
During the ensuing investigation, Danish officials turned up another recently declassified document: a 1960 US Army report entitled “Strategic Value of the Greenland Ice Cap.” This report was in regards to Camp Century. However, it was proposing an altogether different base layout than the publicity films had shown. The information in this document soon made it clear that Camp Century was not the peace-loving, science and survival humanity project that it had been made out to be. It was, evidently, a cover operation for a much more ambitious effort known internally at the US War Office as Project Iceworm. The objective of Project Iceworm was to test whether it was feasable to dig deep, permanent vertical shafts into the Greenland ice. The purpose of these shafts would be to conceal a vast array of medium range nuclear missiles, all zeroed in on nearby Soviet countries. The Project Iceworm documentation proposed a complex of six hundred hidden nuclear launch sites around Greenland, spread out over an area of 52,000 square miles. New “Ice Man” nuclear missiles, a shorter range variant of the Minute Man, would inhabit these hidden ice silos. These declassified documents revealed that Army engineers first experimented with ice construction techniques at a secret site in Greenland known as Project Fistclench. They then set out to build Camp Century to further prove out their nuclear ice complex designs under the guise of scientific endeavors. Evidently, “Project Report #6” was a fiction intended to throw the Soviets and Danes off the scent. Progress reports one through five don’t even seem to exist.
Fortunately, nature intervened and rendered Project Iceworm impossible. To put all of this into historical context, work on Iceworm began in 1958. That’s four years before the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s worth pointing out that some scientific good did come from the Project Iceworm work. During their research, the US Army engineers drilled down into the ancient Greenland ice sheet and extracted some of the first deep ice cores ever made available to science. These cores continue to prove informative even today. In particular, chemical analysis of the ice layers has been used to establish the link between atmospheric greenhouse gases and global temperatures. So although this top secret abominable ice man project may have been misguided, it did help science to discover that we seem to be slowly destroying our own ecosystem and with it ourselves. See? Every cloud does have a silver lining.
FILM NARRATOR: “This is the story of Camp Century, of the Army engineers who carved out the underground city, of the many other men of the United States Army who made this project possible, and of man’s never ceasing quest for knowledge.”
ALAN: For more information on Camp Century, or to watch the video of “Progress Report #6,” visit Damninteresting.com and search for “Greenland.”
This was Damn Interesting. I’m Alan Bellows.