Photos

Debris from abandoned WW II-era Arctic military base polluting Greenland

When Bluie East II, a U.S. military base built in eastern Greenland in 1942, was abandoned in 1947, everything was left behind to rust.

‘Pristine, picture-perfect landscape and then sitting in that landscape is all the hazardous materials’

'I was really just shocked at it, it was beyond belief,' says Ken Bower, a graphic designer from New York City who stumbled across the site for the first time in 2012. (Ken Bower)

It's an image that requires a double-take: a pristine Arctic landscape in Greenland, dotted with rusted debris from an abandoned World War II military base.

Bluie East II was a U.S. military base built in eastern Greenland in 1942. It was used to bring in supplies, refuel planes and manage flights in need of an emergency landing pad.

When the site, which housed 200 to 300 soldiers, was abandoned in 1947, everything was left behind to rust and break down.

'You have this absolute pristine, picture-perfect landscape and then sitting in that landscape is all the hazardous materials,' says Bower. (Ken Bower)

"I was really just shocked at it, it was beyond belief," says Ken Bower, a graphic designer from New York City who stumbled across the site for the first time in 2012.

"You have this absolute pristine, picture-perfect landscape and then sitting in that landscape is all the hazardous materials."

From the moment Bower saw the abandoned base, he knew he had to document it.

Three years later, he was able to return to Greenland and visit Kulusuk, home to 250 people, the closest community to the base.

Navigating the sea ice to get to the base was not easy in July 2015. It took three attempts for Ken Bower and his guide from Kulusuk to get to the base. (Ken Bower)

Navigating the sea ice to get from the community to the base was not easy that July. It took three attempts for Bower and his guide from Kulusuk to get there.

During his eight days camping at the base, Bower says he was able to capture a lot of photos of the debris.

He says the most shocking revelation came on an unseasonably warm day when temperatures rose to about 8 C.

'I started hearing these sounds like drum beats,' says Bower. The sounds were from the lids of the fuel containers. Warm temperatures had expanded the fuel and the vapours were pushing against the lids making them pop up. (Ken Bower)

"I started hearing these sounds like drum beats in the distance, one after another," he says.

It turns out warm temperatures had expanded the fuel in nearby containers and the vapours were pushing against the lids making them pop up.

"It sounded like a drum beat, so that made me realize there's a lot more fuel than I thought." 

From bulldozers to buried ammo

Robert Baxter was stationed in Bluie East II in 1946 when he was 18 years old.

During his year of service, he operated the ground station radio and send out hourly weather reports. He was also the cryptographer. 

Robert Baxter recalls when the base was abandoned, so were the bulk of the supplies and equipment. (Ken Bower)

Baxter recalls that when the base was abandoned, so were the bulk of supplies and equipment.

"There was about 3,000 55-gallon [208-litre] drums of aviation gas, automotive gas, heating oil. And those drums are all [still] there," says Baxter.

Robert Baxter, centre, with two of his army buddies, while stationed on Bluie East II in 1946. (submitted by Robert Baxter)

He also says there are likely still 800 cases of dynamite stored in a wooden shed on the abandoned base, along with buried ammunition all over the site.

"The army sent a demolitions expert up to dispose of [the dynamite], but he said it was too risky to fool with, so he left."

Baxter says radios, trucks, jeeps, bulldozers and other heavy machinery were also left at the base.

Base likely contains 'hazardous material'

William Colgan from York University's Lassonde School of Engineering has been studying the environmental impacts of abandoned military bases in Greenland.

'Without knowing the precise materials of construction we, can speculate that they would include hazardous material,' says York University's William Colgan. (Ken Bower)

He says there are a lot of reasons to be alarmed.

"Without knowing the precise materials of construction, we can speculate that they would include hazardous material," he says.

Colgan says the base was built in an era when harmful substances were regularly used in construction and disposed of without regard.

"The Greenland environment is really sensitive," he says.  "It's fragile and it's easy to bio-accumulate things in the relatively short food chain."

'I would like them to clean it up,' says Fredereik Wille, a school teacher in Kulusuk, Greenland, the community closest to the base. (Ken Bower)

Colgan adds that what goes into the land and water in Greenland inevitably ends up being ingested by people. 

"The people who live in Greenland, since they actually live on the land or from the land and they're consuming the game and the fish, it makes them very sensitive to this bio-accumulation."

'Clean it up'

Fredereik Wille, a school teacher in Kulusuk, says people in the community are concerned about the fuel drums and garbage left at the site and want it cleaned up.

"They are not nice, they look very ugly," says Wille. "I think they are polluting the land and the water close to it."

Wille says people want someone to take responsibility.

"I would like them to clean it up, they should have cleaned it up a long time ago." 

Bower has created a petition asking the U.S. military to clean up the abandoned base.

To date, he has collected more than 33,800 signatures.

About the Author

Sima Sahar Zerehi

Sima Sahar Zerehi is a reporter with CBC North. She started her career in journalism with the ethnic press working for a Canadian-based Farsi language newspaper. Her CBC journey began as a regular commentator with CBC radio's Metro Morning. Since then she's worked with CBC in Montreal, Toronto and now Iqaluit.