Among the many Bond villain-esque plans dreamed up during the Cold War, few come stranger than "Project Iceworm," the shady US program to build a network of top secret nuclear missile launch sites beneath the Danish territory of Greenland. The largest and most impressive of the US bases was Camp Century, a warren of tunnels and labs under northwest Greenland's ice sheet that was powered by its own portable nuclear reactor.
After just eight years of operation, Camp Century was decommissioned in 1967 due to engineering woes and a political scandal centered on whether Denmark had actually given the US full permission to house nuclear materials in their territory.
As the Cold War ended, the base was largely forgotten, not least because it was hoped to remain “preserved for eternity” under a blanket of snow and ice. However, with climate change knocking at the door, it looks like a different kind of thaw could reveal all.
A study published in 2016 used simulations to show that the ice above and around Camp Century could thaw by 2090 under a “business-as-usual” climate change scenario. Not only would this unearth the once-secret abandoned military base, but it also holds the potential to let loose the huge amounts of chemical and nuclear waste left at the site. These pollutants could leech into the surrounding surface water and spark a plethora of problems for the island's human population and ecosystem.
Another study, published last year in the journal Global Environmental Politics, took a further look at the situation at Camp Century, arguing it has the potential to fire up some long-frozen geopolitical tensions. It's not very clear how much Denmark knew about the US' plans in Greenland. While they agreed the US could have the Thule Air Base in northwest Greenland, the issue of nuclear weapons in Danish territory was a big no-no. To make matters even thornier, Greenland has since transitioned to a self-governing overseas administrative division of Denmark.
If the climatic scenario predicted does hit, as anticipated, who will be responsible for the clean-up of toxic chemicals and radioactive materials?
As the study argues, Camp Century is not the only problem. This scenario serves as just one example of how climate change could trigger a huge number of unforeseen consequences in international politics, especially when it comes to overseas military bases.
“The case could be the proverbial canary in the coal mine for future politics surrounding overseas military bases,” according to study author Jeff Colgan.
“Climate change can create knock-on environmental problems associated with a military base’s infrastructure or waste that disrupt the international politics that govern the base,” he wrote in the study. “Any cleanup costs or compensation related to the knock-on environmental problems create an unfunded liability for the host country, the country operating the base, or both.”
This is just another unexpected fallout of the climate issue we're facing that needs to be dealt with sooner rather than later.