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art and life…

aka Project Iceworm…


Camp Century was a nuclear powered research center built by the Army Corps of Engineers under the icy surface of Greenland. It was occupied from 1959 to 1966 under the auspices of the US Army Polar Research and Development Center. Its climatically hostile environment was located a mere 800 miles from the North Pole. The site was chosen May 17, 1959. At 6180 feet above sea level, this flat plateau features a mean temperature of minus ten degrees Fahrenheit, recorded temperatures of minus 70 degrees and winds exceeding 125 mph. The average annual snow accumulation is four feet.  Construction started June 1959 and was completed October 1960. The completed project cost $7,920,000, which included the $5,700,000 cost of the portable nuclear power plant.

the camp floorplan…

Maximum use was made of snow as a building material. Camp Century utilized a “cut-and-cover” trenching technique. Long ice trenches were created by Swiss made “Peter Plows”, which were giant rotary snow milling machines. The machine’s two operators could move up to 1200 cubic yards of snow per hour. The longest of the twenty-one trenches was known as “Main Street.” It was over 1100 feet long and 26 feet wide and 28 feet high. The trenches were covered with arched corrugated steel roofs which were then buried with snow.

Prefabricated wood work buildings and living quarters were erected in the resulting snow tunnels.  Each seventy-six foot long electrically heated barrack contained a common area and five 156 square foot rooms.  Several feet of airspace was maintained around each building to minimize melting.  To further reduce heat build-up, fourteen inch diameter “air wells” were dug forty feet down into the tunnel floors to introduce cooler air. Nearly constant trimming of the tunnel walls and roofs was found to be necessary to combat snow deformation.

The camp was staffed year round, with population peaking at nearly 200 over the summer months. Most of the supplies came via Thule Air Base, an arduous one hundred and fifty miles to the west. Thule Air base is the US Air Force’s northernmost base. The water supply was produced by pumping steam deep down into an ice well. This “Rodriguez Well” produced over 10,000 gallons of fresh water daily.  This fresh water supply had fallen on Greenland as snow nearly two thousand years before.

The successful 4550 foot core drilling was accomplished by utilizing a thermal drill to 1755 feet followed by an electromechanical drill. For the first time, continuous ice cores representing over 100,000 years of climatic history could be studied. It would be years later that the true value of the ice cores would be widely realized. Much has since been learned from studying the ice geology below Camp Century. The data has been revisited most recently in studies of global warming and as well as research regarding past Earth strikes by meteoroids and comets.

the ice well…

With the advent of long-range bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles, it was inevitable that military attention would be drawn to remote but strategic arctic regions. Camp Century may have also been a pilot project for a network of proposed missile sites under the ice sheet, code named “Project Iceworm.”  During this period of the Cold War, the US Army was working on plans to base newly designed “Iceman” ICBM missiles in a massive network of tunnels dug into the Greenland icecap.  The Iceworm plans were eventually deemed impractical and abandoned. No missiles were ever known to have been based at Camp Century.

The US Army Nuclear Power Program was created to develop small nuclear power reactors for use at remote sites. Most were based on existing US Naval reactor designs. Eight reactors were built in all, and six of the eight produced useful power.  The nuclear reactor at Camp Century was the first of the US Army’s portable reactors to actually produce power.

Camp Century was designed to have a useful life of at least ten years with proper maintenance. However, due to unanticipated movement of the glacial ice, it essentially became a summer camp in 1964.  Maintaining the tunnels at Camp Century required time-consuming and laborious trimming and removal of more than 120 tons of snow and ice each month.  Camp Century was abandoned for good in 1966.  The Greenland icecap, in constant motion, would completely destroy all the tunnels over the course of several years. Today, it is likely that most of Camp Century has been reclaimed by the ice.

much more about Camp Century here


1 Comment

  1. dave novak says:

    awesome photos….nice to see someone was interested enough to preserve this piece of history

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