The Current

Melting ice reveals secret nuclear U.S. military base posing environmental risk

Climate scientists predict the ice around Camp Century in Greenland — a secret Cold War U.S. military base — will melt before the end of this century, potentially causing an environmental disaster.
A rusty container of lubricant oil lingers outside the eastern Greenland settlement of Kulusuk. It stands among a plethora of abandoned U.S. military material left behind after the Cold War that poses a threat to the surrounding environment. (John McConnico/AP)

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The toxic legacy of a top-secret Cold War U.S. military base is coming to the surface in Greenland — exposing state secrets frozen in ice.

In the late 50s, American war planners built Camp Century to play a potentially devastating role in any thermonuclear exchange with the Soviet Union. The base was intended to consist of underground ice tunnels with 4000 km of track, and an accompanying underground train housing 600 nuclear missiles. 

Although Camp Century never had any nuclear missiles — PCBs, diesel fuel, and low-level radioactive material were left behind when the project was abandoned in 1967.

At the time, it was assumed the base would be encapsulated in ice underground and "preserved for eternity."

"It wouldn't be exposed for tens of thousands of years and nobody was really worried about it on those time scales," said research glaciologist Mike MacFerrin.

But with climate change, scientists warn melting snow and ice could eventually expose what lies beneath the base — creating political conflict over who's responsible for dealing with the toxic waste that would surface.

MacFerrin told The Current, it's just a matter of time until the melt "reaches the surface and starts running off toward the coast," seeing as North Greenland and the other parts of the Arctic are warming twice as fast as the rest of the world.

He warned the industrial chemicals PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are particularly dangerous for the surrounding areas. 

"Those are toxic. It's a persistent organic pollutant. And when you start running all this off to the coast, including fuel and PCBs and in low-level nuclear waste, it will reach the coast. It will empty into the bay and estuaries in the rivers around the northwest coast of Greenland and that's really a big problem for the communities that still live there," said MacFerrin.

Who takes responsibility?

According to Jeff Colgan, author of the report Climate Change and the Politics of Military Bases, both the U.S. and Denmark are the logical targets to take on the cost of environmental remediation. Camp Century was a U.S. military operation, but seeing as Greenland is a colony of Denmark, some say Denmark is responsible for allowing Camp Century's development.

"There is a treaty between [the U.S. and Denmark] in 1951 that allowed America to have a base and operations in Greenland. But Camp Century was outside of that area and there certainly wasn't permission for the U.S. to have nuclear missiles at Camp Century," explained Colgan. 

While the Pentagon is worried about how climate change is affecting sea level rise and potentially changing their infrastructure, Colgan says they aren't necessarily thinking about how abandoned military sites might be affected by climate change.

"And that's going to complicate the negotiations between the U.S. military and the host governments that ultimately allow us to operate on their territory," Colgan told The Current's host Anna Maria Tremonti.

There's like 30-plus sites in and around Greenland that the Americans constructed during that time.- Holm Olsen, Greenland's representative in the U.S. and Canada

It's predicted it can take almost a century for the ice to expose what lies beneath.  From Greenland's perspective, they want a proper investigation into the potential environment impacts of Camp Century and for the principle polluter to remedy the situation.

"This was during a time where we essentially weren't a colony. So you know, it was behind our backs. And it will either be Denmark or the U.S. that has to take responsibility of this," said Inuuteq Holm Olsen, the representative for Greenland in the U.S. and Canada.

He told Tremonti that the U.S. has not said anything to them about what role they will play in clean up but pointed to a successful political agreement signed in January between Greenland and Denmark on the clean up of other military installations constructed during World War II.

"There's like 30-plus sites in and around Greenland that the Americans constructed during that time. And after years of pondering this issue, Denmark decided to make funds available over the next six years to do a clean up of those sites."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's Alison Masemann.