In the 1960s, locked in a power game with the East, the United States sought to assert its power against the Eastern Bloc. Thus, the decision was made to build a military base beneath the Greenland icecap. Known as “the city under the ice,” Camp Century was the testing ground for a top-secret project, centered on an extensive tunnel system intended to house up to 600 ballistic missiles ready to attack Moscow at a moment’s notice.

Today, as the continuous effects of climate change reduce global glacial coverage, a retreating Greenland ice sheet threatens to expose the region to the military installation’s toxic remains – a threat which begs the question: do national security considerations trump environmental concerns?  

US national security strategy has long focused on the “Soviet threat.” During the Cold War, the US government explored a number of new defense technologies, including executing operations in harsh climates and terrain.  Military intelligence considered an Arctic theater of war to be a likely possibility, due to its close proximity to both the USSR and US territory. Therefore, military capabilities were extended to Polar regions. Construction of Camp Century started in 1959 on the northwestern Greenlandic ice sheet. With the aim of improving the military’s capabilities to operate in Polar regions, the camp provided space for a crew of 100 to 200 people. The under-ice structures even provided facilities such as a library, hobby shops, and a theater.

However, in its operation of the campsite, the US created considerable amounts of waste. Once the camp was abandoned in 1965, the waste was left within the ice sheet to be “preserved for eternity.” Among the debris enclosed within the ice sheet, scientists report physical waste, like abandoned train tracks and structural remains, and an estimated 24 million litres of biological waste, including waste water and sewage. Furthermore, 200,000 litres of diesel fuel remain, in addition to radioactive coolant liquid used for the underground reactor, which was removed. A significant amount of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chemicals with a high toxicity, is also of significant environmental concern.

From 1996-2014, scientists observed a temperature increase of up to 0.15°C in Greenland, resulting in a continuously shrinking ice sheet. Although scientists consider that a complete resurfacing of Camp Century will likely not occur within this century, camp debris could still become problematic. A scientific expedition to the campsite in 2016 found that the toxic waste is prone to interact with the meltwater flowing through the different layers of the ice sheet. Thus, the toxins have likely already spread beyond the campsite and will eventually run off into the ocean.

The story of Camp Century demonstrates that activities in the past can have long-term bearing on the future. The short-sighted installation of a military camp, in operation for a total of only six years, created costs that will have to be borne by future generations.

The fundamental message that Camp Century conveys is that if put into question, national security interests will override all other considerations. Despite the fact that environmental degradation, in itself, poses a significant threat to national security, especially in light of its transboundary nature, Camp Century’s environmental impact – couched in the nebulous terms of ‘eternal preservation’ – was neglected. The Cold War saga of the camp raises the question of how to balance short term security with long term societal and environmental costs. Even more so, Camp Century’s multigenerational legacy demonstrates that short run security may create hazardous consequences for future populations. In considering the consequences of Camp Century, William Colgan, the lead scientist in the most recent expedition, emphasised the camp had opened up a “new pathway to political dispute associated with climate change.”

Apart from creating challenging scientific and technical issues, Camp Century raises a multitude of possibly unanswerable questions. However, as the legacy of Camp Century will undoubtedly be one of large-scale environmental degradation, the experience should be a sharp reminder of balancing the greater good. The environment does not have an advocate on its behalf and its protection is subject to states’ discretion. Yet, this environment builds the very basis of mankind’s subsistence. If national security considerations incessantly trump environmental protection, the ensuing environmental deterioration will eventually become the greatest national security consideration.  

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