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A TREASURE OF GREENLAND DIRT

BACK IN THE 1960s, the U.S. military Camp Century in Greenland was publicized as a scientific research base. Actually, though, Camp Century, about 150 miles east of Thule Air Base, was a cover story for Project Iceworm, a clandestine plan to launch nuclear missiles that was kept secret even from host nation Denmark.

A plan view of Camp Century, its facilities embedded in tunnels of Greenland ice.

A Failed Project, But…. It turned out that Greenland’s ice sheet wasn’t stable enough to support 21 tunnels, totaling 9800 ft. Camp Century and Project Iceworm were abandoned in 1967.

In its construction, however, an ice core was drilled 4265 ft. deep at the site.

In the 1960s, this rig drilled an ice core in a Camp Century secret tunnel. Image by David Atwood/U.S. Army-ERDC-CRREL/AIP Emilio Segré Visual Archives. This and the following image from Science, November 1, 2019.

By the mid-1990s, the samples had been forgotten and fobbed off to a ice core repository at the University of Copenhagen. It was either that or the samples were going to end up in Lake Erie.

Instead, late in 2018, Danish glaciologists Jergen Peter Steffensen and Dorthe Dahl-Jensen identified 30 glass jars from the core’s deepest 9.8 ft. of sediment. “This,” Science reports, “was a rare haul. Only a few drilling efforts have penetrated Greenland’s ice to the land beneath.”

Paul Voosen’s article “Mud in Storied Ice Core Hints at a Thawed Greenland,” in Science, November 1, 2019, describes subsequent research. Also, Atlas Obscura gives details of this “Cold War atomic camp buried under the ice.”

Visit Camp Century?? Atlas Obscure notes that “because global warming has caused the ice sheet covering Camp Century to melt, the facility may be unearthed by the end of the century, maybe sooner.”

Constructing Camp Century’s nuclear reactor in the 1960s. U.S. Army photo/public domain from Atlas Obscura.

Don’t plan your trip just yet, though. Camp Century was nuclear-powered and one problem may be the site’s abandoned radioactive waste.

Quite a Find. “There’s a lot of new data,” said University of Vermont geophysicist Paul Bierman, “90 percent of which seemed to be generated in the last 48 hours.”

AAAS Science writer Paul Voosen recounts, “… the researchers couldn’t believe their luck when they visited Copenhagen this spring to see the Camp Century ‘cookie jars,’ as Steffensen called them. What they held could double existing knowledge.”

Dirt from the core’s base was once exposed at the Greenland surface. Image by Jean-Louis Tison/Université Libre de Bruxelles.

Greenland Free of Ice? Voosen quotes Utah State University geologist Tammy Rittenour: “The early results suggested the site may have been free of ice as recently as 400,000 years ago, she says, during a warm period between ice ages.”

“Camp Century is sort of a litmus test,” Voosen quotes Steffensen, pointing to “a severely reduced Greenland Ice Sheet.” “Sea level,” Voosen writes, “would have been many meters higher than today, even though the climate 1 million years ago was similar to today’s greenhouse-warmed climate.”

Research Continues. Voosen writes, “Scientists are hunting through macrofossils, leaf wax, mineral types, noble gases, and much more to answer questions about what Greenland’s ancient landscape looked like when it was last exposed. But they must choose their targets wisely, Bierman says, ‘There’s less of this stuff than there is Moon rocks.’ ” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2019

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