Project Iceworm

[Image: Camp Century under construction; photograph via Frank J. Leskovitz].

Camp Century—aka "Project Iceworm"—was a "city under ice," according to the U.S. Army, a "nuclear-powered research center built by the Army Corps of Engineers under the icy surface of Greenland," as Frank J. Leskovitz more specifically explains.

A fully-functioning "underground city," Camp Century even had its own mobile nuclear reactor—an "Alco PM-2A"—that kept the whole thing lit up and running during the Cold War.

[Images: Camp Century under construction; photographs via Frank J. Leskovitz].

According to Leskovitz, the Camp's construction crews "utilized a 'cut-and-cover' trenching technique" during the base's infraglacial construction:
    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.
Prefab facilities were then added, with "wood work buildings and living quarters... erected in the resulting snow tunnels."

[Images: Camp Century under construction; photographs via Frank J. Leskovitz].

Leskowitz continues:
    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.
Somewhat incredibly, though, Camp Century went from scientific outpost to research-site for the U.S. Army's attempt to install battle-ready nuclear missiles underneath the Greenland ice sheet—the so-called "Project Iceworm" mentioned earlier. The following four short videos, produced by the U.S. military, explore the site's strange technical circumstances as well as its complicated defensive history.

Indeed, "During this period of the Cold War," Leskovitz explains, "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," and, "due to unanticipated movement of the glacial ice," the entire subterranean complex was eventually left in ruins.

The idea that the moving terrain of a glacial ice sheet could be considered a stable-enough launching point for nuclear missiles is astonishing, and the idea that the U.S. Army once ran a top secret, and rather Metallica-sounding, "city under ice" just shy of the North Pole only adds to the story's disarming surreality.

[Image: The plan of Camp Century; via Frank J. Leskovitz].

In any case, more photographs, including of the Army's mobile nuclear reactor, are available on Leskovitz's site.

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Anonymous Andy said...

Fascinating post, but what the article fails to mentions is that the base was abandoned because the portable nuclear reactor awakened an ancient, angry ice beast called Stroggth Twu, who promptly began to feed on the hapless army engineer corps. For what it's worth...

January 19, 2011 4:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The diagram instantly reminds me of the caves at Cappadocia. Is tufa easier or harder to excavate than ice?

January 19, 2011 10:32 PM  
Blogger Derek said...

Looks like the US Army attempted to build a working model of the ice-planet Hoth.

January 20, 2011 4:31 AM  
Anonymous timd said...

designed by Mr T Pynchon it believe

January 20, 2011 7:14 AM  
Anonymous Michael Huber AIA LEED AP said...

Just found your blog and love it. This post is a fascinating example of depths man will go to driven by fear and ingenuity. This project was both irrational and beautiful at the same time. Thanks for the post!

January 20, 2011 4:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Camp Century was featured in National Geographic in the 1960s- should be more photos there.

January 24, 2011 8:18 PM  
Blogger MB94128 said...

Further reading :
"Camp Century; city under the ice."
Walter H. Wager, 1962

"City under the ice; the story of Camp Century."
Charles Michael Daugherty, 1963

Also, in fiction :
"Phase Three Alert"
John D. Ball, 1977
This novel gives a snapshot of life at Thule AFB, which was the support base for Camp Century.

January 31, 2011 3:42 AM  
Blogger Jordan179 said...

Fascinating post, and one with serious implications for the design and excavation of any under-ice structures. When one considers that there are vast ice-covered expanses of the Earth still untenanted by humans, and that most of the Solar System lies beyond the "snow line" (the distance from the Sun at which water remains in solid phase in a vacuum), this becomes an important consideration for the future.

April 04, 2011 1:18 PM  

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