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Exploring Greenland: Science and Technology in Cold War Settings

Other Research Project | 02/05/2016

Photo: Annette Fuglsang, Scanpix

The “Exploring Greenland” project provides new knowledge about the relationship between science, technology, environment and geopolitics during the Cold War. Mapping for the first time the full scope of US scientific-military interventions in Greenland, the project shows that the Cold War resulted in tremendous expansion of our scientific knowledge about Arctic environments, but also that scientific explorations were part and parcel of the broader power struggle over Greenland and the rest of the Arctic. The project offers historical perspectives on a number of 21st century grand challenges such as environmental change and global conflicts. It demonstrates how during the early Cold War Greenland became a hot spot for scientific research as well as political interests. It also reveals that discussions about scientific, environmental and political aspects of Greenland were closely intertwined and that such discussions helped shape the diplomatic relationship between the superpower USA and a small country like Denmark. The knowledge gained will enable us to develop more nuanced understanding of the immediate past and present of Greenland and, ultimately, to appropriately manage its future.

The Carlsberg Foundation has supported the project with DKK 5.5 mill

Greenland has attracted researchers for several hundred years and for many different reasons. During the Cold War the geopolitical importance of the world’s largest non-continental island and the growing awareness that in all likelihood future battles between the two superpowers would somehow involve Greenland, impacted in significant ways on research activities there. But how did Greenland happen to become a hot spot of military-scientific research during that period? And what are the consequences for research in Greenland today?

For the first time an international team of researchers has investigated the scope of research activities in Greenland during the Cold War with special attention given to research sponsored by US military and its implications for science and policy in Greenland, Denmark and the USA. Head of the research project, Matthias Heymann of Centre for Science Studies, Aarhus University, says:

“Our research shows that the Cold War entailed major changes in the framework conditions for research in Greenland and in the kind of research questions pursued. Vice versa, the scientific knowledge produced impacted on the course of the Cold War.”

Research vs. Geopolitics in Greenland During the Cold War

As World War II was drawing towards a close, American scientists increasingly began to take interest in the Arctic, including Greenland. US-based research institutions with affiliations to the military in particular initiated many new research projects. In course of the 1950s and 1960s, several hundred American researchers came to Greenland to investigate its unique geophysical environment. The reason for their sudden interest in ice, snow, rocks, permafrost, and the atmosphere was Greenland’s strategic location in the Arctic – right in between the competing superpowers, the USA and the Soviet Union.

The offensive polar strategy of the USA emerged around 1950. It projected the establishment of extensive military capacities in the Arctic areas. Greenland was to become an advanced bastion for the North American continent confronting the enemy to the East. 

Map from 1952 showing Greenland’s central location as an advanced air base for American bombers attacking targets in the Soviet Union and in Central Europe. Greenland Map © Estate of James Lewicki

Enacting the polar strategy would require new knowledge about Arctic environments. A number of researchers therefore had to be enlisted in the scientific ‘campaign’ to conquer the Arctic. Particularly, Northern Greenland was identified as the home of many research field stations allowing American researchers to conduct systematic and prolonged investigations in the fields of glaciology, seismology, geology, meteorology, and ionospheric physics.

The Scientific Sovereignty of Denmark in Greenland

Just after World War II, the USA offered to buy Greenland from Denmark. Having overcome their initial surprise at the offer, Danish politicians politely declined. Denmark wanted to consolidate its sovereignty over Greenland, partly because of the historical ties between Denmark and Greenland and partly because Danish politicians realised that Greenland had geopolitical importance to Denmark. As a small country situated right in between the two superpowers, Denmark was relatively insignificant, if not for Greenland. Greenland was, in other words, Denmark’s best asset in the Cold War superpower struggle.

Sovereignty challenged. The subtitle reads: Sweet Alvida, do you dare to ask the lodger if he minds us coming in? Des Asmussen, Svikmøllen, 1953

Denmark also tried to consolidate its scientific sovereignty over Greenland by creating the Geological Survey of Greenland in 1946. The Survey was the first permanent state institution to assume responsibility of geological investigations in Greenland. Volunteers carried out the first scientific program, as no trained staff employed on a regular basis was available to take on the task.

A New Era for Greenland Research

The Greenland Agreement of 27 April 1951 between USA and Denmark gave the USA extensive rights in the so-called ‘defense areas’. The Agreement also established the conditions according to which the Americans were able to operate outside the defence areas. In the following years, the USA established Thule Air Base, the largest construction project in the history of Greenland, involving more than 12,000 workers and 300,000 tons of cargo.

Geographically, Greenland is part of the North American continent, but politically the island has been politically and culturally associated with Europe (specifically Norway and Denmark, the colonial powers, as well as the nearby island of Iceland) for more than a millennium. In 1979, Denmark granted home rule to Greenland, and in the 2008 referendum, Greenlanders voted in favour of the Self-Government Act.

The Americans also established a number of scientific camps close to Thule AB in order to investigate Greenland’s ice and snow. Camp Tuto (Thule Take Off) was placed right at the edge of the ice cap with a ramp going up onto the inland ice. Other camps were established on – and under – the ice. American military officers and scientists also carried out numerous expeditions to conduct geological, geodetic and meteorological surveys. The endeavours ushered in a new era in terms of scientific research in Greenland where smaller, largely uncoordinated expeditions, and gave ways to systematic, managed and directed research teams.

Christopher J. Ries, who in the current research project has focused on research performed by US military geologists, says:

“The renowned Danish geologist, Lauge Koch in the 1930s, was one of the first Greenland explorers to make extensive use of modern technology such as airplanes, international research teams and a relatively high degree of management. However, it was the Americans, who during the Cold War really turned research in Greenland into a kind of Big Science.”

City Under Ice

One of the most spectacular projects was the construction of Camp Century, a military research camp often known as the “City under ice”. Built in 1959-60, Camp Century accommodated 200 ‘inhabitants’, the so-called Ice Worms, who were able to enjoy modern facilities from hot showers to library and cinema. A small, transportable nuclear reactor was installed in the autumn of 1960 to supply the camp with heat and electricity.

An artist’s rendering of Camp Century, the City under ice. National Geographic.

The main purpose of Camp Century was to explore the possibilities of establishing and maintaining long tunnels under the inland ice. Such tunnels were planned to have nuclear medium-range ballistic missiles installed to enforce the policy of deterrence against the Soviets. The large-scale proposal, produced by the US Army, was known as Project Iceworm. Luckily for Denmark, whose non-nuclear policy also included Greenland, the project was never realised. The main reasons for closing down Project Iceworm prematurely were internal competition with similar nuclear missile projects initiated by the Air Force (Minuteman) and the Navy (Polaris), the costs of building and maintaining long tunnels under the ice, and the foreseeable objections to the project from the Danish authorities.

At Camp Century the American installed an ice core drilling facility. The drill reached bedrock of the inland ice by the mid-1960s.

Although different research projects were carried out in Camp Century, most researchers were concerned with studies of ice and snow. It was here that American researchers obtained a 1,390 meter drilled ice core.  Studies of the ice core, performed by a small Danish research team led by Willi Dansgaard of the University of Copenhagen, showed that information about historical changes in temperature going back 100,000 years, could be extracted from the ice core. This knowledge led to renewed interest in climate change research, which is still growing today.

Natural Resource Nationalism and Zero-tolerance

After World War II, leading politicians and scientists in Denmark were hesitant to support uranium exploration in Greenland. They feared that it would undermine Danish sovereignty over Greenland. Although this fear gradually became more and more unfounded, issues of sovereignty and nationalism still played a major role for the exploitation of natural resources up until the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Danish Government for example initiated a number of uranium expeditions to Greenland in order to lead Denmark out of its near-total dependency of coal from Poland and oil from the Middle East.

The expeditions involved collaboration between the Atomic Energy Commission, the Geological Survey of Greenland and in the first years also the Research Council of Danish Defence and the Cryolite Company Øresund. It was clear that Denmark wanted to demonstrate its own capabilities in uranium exploration without assistance from the Americans. Uranium was detected by Kuannersuit (Kvanefjeld) in the southwestern part of Greenland, but its quality was relatively poor. The falling uranium prices during the 1960s made real mining for uranium in Greenland uneconomic.

The town of Narsaq with the controversial fell Kuannersuit containing uranium in the background. SermitsiaqAG.

The price of uranium skyrocketed in consequence of the commercial breakthrough of nuclear power by the end of the 1960s followed by the first oil crisis in 1973-74. As a result, Danish uranium exploration in Greenland and the Kuannersuit project were resumed, even though the Danish authorities officially put the idea of having nuclear power in the Danish energy supply on standby in 1976, due to growing public opposition. In Greenland, where the new home rule in 1979 gained the rights of all natural resource exploitation, nuclear opponents were growing stronger.

For many Greenlanders the project at Kuannersuit became a symbol of how Denmark continued to exploit its former colony. It also represented a new social order in Greenland in which traditional ways of life were threatened due to outside forces. Historians of science and technology, Henry Nielsen and Henrik Nielsen, who have done comprehensive research into the case of uranium exploration in Greenland, say:

“By following the debate about uranium, we have showed that at no occasion did the Greenlandic or Danish authorities adopt a ‘zero-tolerance act’ banning all activities connected to uranium exploration in Greenland. Nonetheless, the existence of such ‘zero-tolerance act’ has been taken for granted by politicians and others in Greenland, and the debate about this act has been long and intense, especially so after the turn of the millennium.”

Important Results

For the first time, the historical research project documents the unprecedented research efforts that took place in Greenland during the Cold War. It has become clear that even though Danish researchers and researchers from other countries were active, it was the Americans that led the systematic exploration of Greenland during the period. The project also highlights the significance of the Cold War in shaping the kind of research that was being conducted. Naturally, the American were most interested in acquiring new knowledge about Greenland’s geophysical environment in an effort to prepare US soldiers and generals for Arctic warfare.

Diplomatic relations between Denmark and the Unites States date back to 1783. During the World War II, after Denmark was occupied by Nazi Germany, the United States established a temporary protectorate over Greenland. After the war, the United States offered to buy Greenland from Denmark for $US 100 million. Denmark declined and embarked on an ambitious project to modernize Greenland in an attempt to enforce sovereignty over the world’s largest non-continental island.

The project shows that the geopolitical tensions between the two superpowers significantly affected the scientific exploration of Greenland. At the same time, the new knowledge that was being procured also had impact – albeit small – on the course on Cold War, just as the knowledge – to much higher degree – played a role for the diplomatic relations between the USA and Denmark. In 1957, the Danish Prime Minister H. C. Hansen  gave, without informing the Danish Parliament, the Americans permission to store nuclear weapons at Thule AB. When the US Army constructed Camp Century, completely with its own transportable nuclear reactor, the Danish Government found itself in a tight corner. As news about Camp Century spread due to Army’s publicity campaign, the Danish authorities were forced to explain that there were no nukes in Greenland. The Danes had to either give in entirely to the American requests to deploy various nuclear weapons in Greenland, or take a firmer stand against the Americans. Denmark opted for the second solution.

Moreover, the project has shed light on the changed conditions for the geophysical disciplines during the Cold War. In consequence of the steeply rising military budgets, scientists within geology, seismology, glaciology, meteorology, etc. suddenly had many more funding opportunities than their colleagues did in other fields. This led to growth in scientific knowledge production and increased professionalisation.

Finally, the project has provided us with new information about the relationship between science, technology and society. Today, there is growing awareness and agreement that science should be steered toward socially desirable and acceptable ends. The project clearly demonstrates that it is possible to carefully manage scientific research without compromising scientific integrity. New surprising knowledge about Greenland’s environment resulted from the many research activities during the Cold War, even if they were closely connected to military aims. The project thus provides some historical justification to the challenges involved in applying science to tackle the grand societal challenges that we face today.

As a result from the research project, fifteen articles have been published in recognised international journals, a special issue of the historical journal Centaurus:  An International Journal of the History of Science and its Cultural Aspects, and eight contributions to research anthologies. Janet Martin-Nielsen’s book Eismitte in the Scientific Imagination: Knowledge and Power at the Center of Greenland was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2013 as well as an edited book with contributions from all of the researchers in the project is due to be published by the same publishing company.