Project Iceworm 1960: The Secret Nuclear Tunnels Under Of Greenland
It was during the Cold War that both the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a constant battle for the most powerful and capable nuclear weapons. In the event of a nuclear assault, both superpowers knew that the first step would be to target their adversary’s nuclear arsenals to limit their ability to retaliate. As a result, enormous efforts were made to transport, conceal, or otherwise protect big nuclear warheads.
When it came to nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union wasn’t the only one investing in armoured trains for transporting big Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) across Siberia and Frankenstein-style helicopters for carrying massive nuke payloads to remote launch sites. A similar sense of impending doom prompted the United States to seek out ever-more creative means of preventing nuclear war, sometimes even on foreign soil itself.
In 1960, at the height of the Cold War era, the US Army developed a secret program named Project Iceworm aimed at constructing a network of movable nuclear missile launch sites beneath the Greenland ice sheet. Project Iceworm was the United States’ most audacious and wild attempt at nuclear deterrence, crossing the line into a James Bond movie plot. To test the feasibility of the project, the US Military built a ‘scientific’ research base in Greenland named Camp Century.
A struggle for the Arctic Circle was nothing new as the Russian military had been working hard to control and protect huge sections in recent years. For American and Russian military systems and targets, the Arctic Circle is often the quickest route. As a result, competing for influence in the Arctic was a foregone conclusion.
As a result, the United States and the Danish government signed an agreement in 1960 to commence the construction of a huge military complex located under the ice of Greenland. For the Pentagon, there were a few key objectives in this effort that led to the building of Camp Century as a testing ground for various construction methods, a nuclear reactor on wheels, and a means of providing power to Arctic research projects. However, as was customary during the Cold War, these seemingly rational objectives served more as a means of concealment than actual advancement.
The Danish government was kept in the dark about the real purpose of Project Iceworm. They had no idea that the US planned to store medium-range ballistic missiles under the ice to strike the Soviet Union Instead, they were told by various United States Department of Defense officials what the ‘official purpose” of the mission was.
The “official cover story” of Camp Century, as explained by the US DoD to Danish officials in 1960, was to investigate the viability of working under the ice, test various construction techniques under Arctic conditions, explore practical problems with a semi-mobile nuclear reactor, as well as to conduct scientific experiments on the icecap.
Details of Project Iceworm were kept secret for decades until 1995 when the Danish Foreign Policy Institute (DUPI) made inquiries into the use and storage of nuclear weapons in Greenland, following the release of previously classified information about the 1968 Thule Air Base B-52 crash.
For the most part, this new endeavour was a cover for Project Iceworm, an ambitious plan to build an enormous network of nuclear tunnels beneath the ice of Greenland that could be used to store, transport, and launch nuclear missiles. The United States could use such tunnels to launch a slew of nuclear warheads at their Soviet adversaries from below the ice, making it practically impossible for the Soviets to fight against or even assault the missile sites they were using on a regular basis.
Camp Century was built at an altitude of 2000m in Northwest Greenland, some 240 km East of the already established American Thule Air Base. It was located fewer than 1,000 miles from the North Pole, and it was common to see temperatures as low as -70 degrees Fahrenheit. It was incredibly difficult to build a military base on the Northern Greenland ice sheet at the time.
A technique known as “cut and cover” was used by the U.S. Army Engineer Corps to dig two kilometres of tunnels beneath the North Greenland Ice Sheet, beginning in 1959. Massive Swiss-made rotary tilling machines were used to dig deep ditches in the snow and ice as part of this strategy. An arched steel roof was erected over the newly excavated trench, and it was subsequently reburied.
In addition to the projected 600 nuclear missiles and all the supporting equipment needed by the covert Project Iceworm, the United States Army had also created tunnels beneath the arched steel roof. These tunnels could be used to develop workstations as well as recreational areas. Although it was initially powered by a nuclear generator known as the PM-2A, more conventional diesel equipment was eventually substituted for the nuclear generator as the development advanced and issues surfaced.
Design and Layout of Camp Century
The Largest trench, known as “Main Street”, was a 1,100-foot-long, 26-foot-wide, and 30-foot-tall section in Camp Century’s “Main Building”. It was completed in 1960 and included several barracks facilities as well as multiple chapels, an entire base library, and even an entire gymnasium. Individual rooms in each of the barracks were separated from the ice by an air gap to prevent melting caused by internal heating in each facility. For both cooling and melting control, large holes were dug down into the ice cover.
A thick blanket of snow and ice shielded Camp Century from the freezing temperatures of the outside world, housing more than 200 soldiers.
Project Iceworm in the United States was the driving force behind all the effort, which required a massive amount of labour and cutting-edge technology. To see if the ice shelf could serve as a launch pad for nuclear bombs, everything from the PM-2A nuclear reactor’s placement to the establishment of supply lines to the facility was completed with that goal in mind.
Over time, 2,500 miles of subterranean tunnels would be built and maintained to house a nuclear missile arsenal of 600 “Iceman” missiles, which would be specially modified medium-range nuclear missiles. The current Minuteman missile stockpile of the United States Air Force was modified for use in extreme cold to produce these missiles.
Many of these tunnels would hold railroad tracks which could be used to move the huge missiles swiftly and easily from one point to another while workers were tasked with excavating and protecting additional tunnels each year. Each new tunnel would allow a new spot to store or launch missiles, making tracking or engaging the subterranean arsenal near to impossible.
If fully constructed, Project Iceworm’s tunnel complex would eventually encompass some 53,000 square miles and employ a whopping 11,000 military personnel. For reference, the entire nation of South Korea covers only roughly 39,000 square miles.
Ice cores collected there during the 1970s were analyzed using stable isotopes to determine past temperatures and sea-level changes. These results indicate that the site was ice-free as recently as 400, 000 years ago, suggesting a much reduced Greenland ice cap and therefore a much higher sea level.
As of 2018, the Geological Survey of Greenland maintains a climate monitoring presence at the site with the Camp Century Climate Research Station. This monitoring presence includes measurements of climate variables, snow and ground surface temperature, and ice-penetrable radar surveys of the subslabs and contaminant fields.
A Catastrophic End
While the strategic value of a huge, subterranean missile complex was easy to establish, the obstacles of creating and sustaining such military installations beneath the surface of an ice sheet soon proved greater than imagined. While the Defense Department had thought the ice to be immobile and solid, the reality was that even the vast Texas-sized ice sheet they’d set up shop on was a dynamic environment.
By 1962, the ceiling in the room containing Camp Century’s nuclear reactor had already dropped by five feet, needing expensive repairs to sustain operations. Soon, core samples were taken that validated the pressing fears of scientists involved: the ice sheet was moving so rapidly that the entire installation would prove unworkable in only a matter of a few years.
In 1963, diesel generators were installed in place of the nuclear reactor, which effectively put an end to the United States’ hopes of building a massive underground missile complex in Greenland. By 1965, the facility had been closed, and in 1969, a group of specialists went back to check on it to see how bad its condition had become.
Since its inception, Project Iceworm had been shrouded in secrecy, and according to the findings and recommendations provided by the team, that secrecy is likely to continue being preserved due to the substantial accumulation of ice and snow in the region. As far as the Defense Department was concerned, a large amount of equipment, diesel fuel, and even radioactive waste was left in the abandoned tunnels to be consumed by the Arctic ice for good.
Ice sheets aren’t quite as permanent in today’s world as they may have once looked to be. As a result of climate change, the ice cap that covers the ruins of Camp Century continues to recede, and experts predict that by the year 2090, all the United States’ Iceworm secrets will be exposed, which has sparked an ongoing discussion about who will ultimately be responsible for the cleanup.