Project Iceworm: The Cold War’s Frozen Secret Beneath Greenland’s Ice

During the height of the Cold War, the United States embarked on numerous clandestine projects aimed at gaining a strategic advantage over the Soviet Union. Among the most ambitious and secretive of these endeavors was Project Iceworm, a plan to build a network of nuclear missile launch sites beneath the Greenland ice sheet. This audacious project, shrouded in secrecy and fraught with engineering challenges, remains one of the most fascinating episodes of Cold War history.

The Birth of Project Iceworm

The Cold War was a period of intense rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, characterized by an arms race and a constant quest for technological superiority. In this context, the U.S. sought innovative ways to position its nuclear arsenal to ensure a second-strike capability in the event of a Soviet attack. This led to the conception of Project Iceworm in the late 1950s.

Source: Atomic Heritage Foundation

The idea was to construct a network of mobile nuclear missile launch sites hidden beneath the Greenland ice sheet. The location was chosen for its strategic advantage: missiles stationed in Greenland could potentially reach targets within the Soviet Union, and the thick ice provided a natural cover against detection and attack.

Camp Century: The Testing Ground

Before launching Project Iceworm, the U.S. Army needed to test the feasibility of building and maintaining facilities under the ice. In 1959, they established Camp Century, a prototype military base and research station approximately 150 miles east of Thule Air Base in northwestern Greenland. Dubbed the “city under the ice,” Camp Century was designed to test various aspects of ice construction and to gather data on the ice sheet’s behavior.

The construction of Camp Century was a remarkable engineering feat. Using specialized machinery called “Peter Plows,” the Army Corps of Engineers carved out a series of tunnels and chambers within the ice. The camp featured living quarters, a mess hall, a hospital, a laboratory, and even a chapel. To power the facility, the Army installed a portable nuclear reactor, making Camp Century one of the first places in the world to use nuclear power for civilian purposes.

Life at Camp Century

Living and working at Camp Century was a unique experience. The base housed around 200 soldiers and scientists who conducted various research projects, including studies on glaciology, climatology, and ice mechanics. Despite the harsh conditions, the inhabitants of Camp Century managed to create a semblance of normal life, complete with recreational activities like movies and games.

By Zygerth – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The environment posed significant challenges. Temperatures inside the tunnels were kept at a relatively constant -20 degrees Fahrenheit, and the perpetual movement of the ice created structural problems. Engineers had to constantly maintain and reinforce the tunnels to prevent collapsing. Nonetheless, the data collected at Camp Century provided valuable insights into the feasibility of constructing and operating facilities beneath the ice.

The Secret Agenda

While Camp Century was publicly described as a scientific research station, its primary purpose remained classified. The true goal was to determine whether a network of missile launch sites could be built and maintained under the ice as part of Project Iceworm. The envisioned missile complex, codenamed “Iceworm,” would have consisted of approximately 2,500 miles of tunnels housing up to 600 nuclear missiles. These missiles would be mounted on mobile launch platforms, allowing them to be moved within the tunnel network to evade detection and attack.

**As an Amazon Associate, The History Box may earn commissions for purchases made through this link.**

The idea was to exploit the constant movement of the ice to provide a dynamic and concealed missile deployment system. However, the project’s ambitious nature raised significant technical and logistical challenges.

Source: Atomic Heritage Foundation

Challenges and Abandonment

As research progressed, it became clear that the project faced insurmountable obstacles. The ice sheet’s movement was more dynamic and unpredictable than initially anticipated, making it difficult to maintain stable tunnels over long periods. The ice was not only moving but also deforming and exerting immense pressure on the structures within it. These conditions made the construction and maintenance of a large-scale missile complex impractical.

Additionally, the extreme cold and isolation of the site posed severe logistical challenges. Supplying and maintaining a network of tunnels and missile silos beneath the ice would have required a continuous and substantial logistical effort, further complicating the project’s feasibility.

By the mid-1960s, advancements in missile technology and changes in strategic priorities led the U.S. military to reconsider the necessity and viability of Project Iceworm. The development of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) provided a more flexible and secure option for nuclear deterrence, reducing the need for land-based missile sites in remote locations.

The Aftermath and Legacy

In 1966, Project Iceworm was officially abandoned, and Camp Century was closed. The camp was left to be gradually reclaimed by the ice, and much of its infrastructure remains buried beneath the Greenland ice sheet to this day.

The declassification of Project Iceworm in the 1990s renewed interest in this remarkable Cold War endeavor. Today, Camp Century and Project Iceworm serve as fascinating case studies in military innovation, engineering challenges, and the lengths nations will go to to pursue strategic advantage.

Environmental Concerns

In recent years, melting ice due to climate change has raised concerns about the remnants of Camp Century. The portable nuclear reactor used at the camp left behind radioactive waste, and other chemical pollutants from the base could be released into the environment as the ice melts. These concerns highlight the long-term environmental impact of such Cold War-era projects and the need for ongoing monitoring and mitigation efforts.

glacier ice melt global warming

As an affiliate and an Amazon Associate, The History Box earns commission from qualifying Amazon purchases and for other purchases made through links in this post.