The cold war brought about some incredible technological advancements on both American and Soviet fronts. Things that make our way of life today possible were once inventions intended to keep us one step ahead of the reds. Indeed, we have our decades long staring match with communism to thank for things like Dynamic Random Access Memory (DRAM) – which may not sound familiar to you, but plays an integral role in the function of the computer you’re reading this article on. If you’re reading this with your phone instead, we can trace the satellite transmitting the information to the local cell tower back to Sputnik; Russia’s glancing victory in a space race the United States would ultimately win.
Not every cold war effort was met with such historic success however. Many American and Soviet cold war era plans failed to make it past the design stages, but then there’s a third, more interesting category: plans so unusual they seem like the plot from one of the campier James Bond movies, but that somehow came to fruition. Project Iceworm was just such a plan.
In 1959, the Army engineering corps began excavating what would ultimately be nearly two miles of tunnels beneath the ice sheet of Greenland. Officially, the U.S. government created these tunnels, called Camp Century, to test the feasibility of various construction techniques under arctic conditions and to support scientific experiments on the ice cap. Beneath the ice, however, these tunnels were intended to be a secret launch platform for six hundred nuclear missiles with targets located throughout the Soviet Union.
The tunnels were dug using a “cut and cover” trenching technique, wherein Swiss made, giant rotary tilling machines were used to cut through up to 1200 cubic yards of snow per hour. Once dug, the trenches would be covered by arched steel roofs, then buried again in snow. Twenty-one trenches would ultimately be dug and subsequently hidden again, the longest of which (referred to as “Main Street”) was over eleven hundred feet long, twenty-six feet wide and nearly thirty feet tall.
Camp Century became known as “the city under the ice” and was equipped with the world’s first mobile nuclear generator. At one point, over two hundred soldiers were stationed at Camp Century, where they enjoyed a complete gym, chapel, library, and even a movie theater, all below the surface of the arctic ice sheet.
Multiple barracks that were nearly eighty feet long housed the soldiers stationed there. Each of the barracks contained a large common area and five smaller rooms, with several feet separating the structures from the walls of ice to minimize melting from the electric heaters. Deep holes were drilled in the ice to introduce more cold air to the gaps between each room and maintain the structural integrity of the frozen tunnels.
In conjunction with the tunneling efforts, a new form of ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) was developed to function in the extreme cold of the sub-surface arctic. Named “Iceman” Missiles, these global strike, nuclear weapons would be housed and routinely moved within the tunnel system, making it extremely difficult to target the weapons even if the Soviets ever learned of their presence.
Project Iceworm, if fully realized, would have covered more than fifty thousand square miles above the arctic circle, allowing for near limitless repositioning and tactical placement of the specially designed missiles. New tunnels were to be dug each year, creating thousands of alternate firing positions for the hundreds of missiles in the arctic arsenal.
While the surface of the ice seemed as solid and immobile as the ground, ice beneath the surface was constantly shifting. These shifts would cause tunnels and trenches to warp, narrow or grow, forcing near constant maintenance to keep the trenches serviceable and safe. By the middle of 1962, the room that housed the nuclear reactor’s ceiling had dropped enough that substantial repairs had to be made in order to raise the ceiling five feet to its original height. In 1963, the Army opted to stop utilizing the reactor, switching instead to diesel generators for the remainder of the base’s use.
Ultimately, this project would be deemed infeasible due to the rate of shifts in the arctic ice sheets. The glacial ice moved at a faster rate than scientists had anticipated, making the tunnels too unstable a launch platform for practical use. In 1967, Camp Century was utterly abandoned, leaving Project Iceworm and the rest of the camp’s infrastructure buried deep beneath the snow only a few hundred miles from the North Pole. The radioactive waste produced by the mobile nuclear generator was left alongside the remnants of the camp with the understanding that the accumulating ice and snow would bury the project, and its secrets, forever.
Unfortunately, scientists in 1967 failed to anticipate another dramatic change that would befall the ice sheets of northern Greenland: global warming. In recent years, Greenland has experienced repeated record high temperatures, causing the ice to melt twice as fast as it has at any point in the twentieth century. Not only are the temperatures in the region increasingly warm, they are becoming warm earlier and earlier in the year.
Current estimates suggest that America’s Bond villain base-beneath-the-ice will remain safely interred in its frozen grave until 2090, at which point the base, as well as the nuclear and chemical waste within it, will be entirely exposed. These estimates, scientists note, will accelerate if the rate of climate change increases.
The issue of the long-forgotten base re-emerging from the ice is the subject of increased discussion between the governments of the United States, Greenland and Denmark, which controls much of the region. Who will be responsible for cleaning up the estimated 200,000 liters of diesel fuel, toxic organic components and unknown amounts of radioactive waste is yet to be determined. Because the United States was not forthright in their intentions for the base in the agreement they signed with Greenland in 1951, the waters these negotiations are set in are further muddied.
As climate change continues to change the face of the planet, who knows what other cold war era secrets may be revealed. Political discussions between nations regarding carbon emissions may soon be coupled with concerns over the secrecy of now defunct military or surveillance operations, or worse, active installations that proved more successful than Project Iceworm. In a world where digital secrets are seemingly uncovered on a daily basis, we may soon be facing the literal uncovering of more dangerous ones from deep beneath the ice.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Army via Defensetech