Ice Sheets, Propaganda, and the US Military: Geologist Professor Paul Bierman for Log Lunch

Pictured: Log Lunch lecturer Paul Bierman, left; daughter Marika Massey-Bierman ’22, right.

On April 29, Paul Bierman ‘85, Professor of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont, delivered the penultimate Log Lunch talk “Climate Change & Greenland: Environmental Impacts of the Cold War.” Hoping to tell an interesting story about an interdisciplinary environmental topic most students wouldn’t know about, Bierman made good on his promise with the story of Camp Century, a Cold War-era U.S. scientific research base operated by the military in Greenland active until 1967.

Having graduated from Williams in 1985 with a major in Geology and a concentration in Environmental Studies, Bierman obtained his masters and Ph.D. in Geology from the University of Washington. He became interested in Camp Century while writing a book on his most recent research analyzing ice cores from the Greenland ice sheet, which were drilled in the ‘60s by American researchers.

Worried by the influence of the Soviet Union in the north, American military forces began building an Arctic air base capable of launching extraordinarily large planes and housing 10,000 men in the 1950s. “The ground is frozen year-round; it’s permafrost, and a tough place to live,” he said. “They hired all of their carpenters from Minnesota because they wanted people who could work in the cold.”

The construction of Camp Century was not confidential information. It was promoted through a robust campaign of videos and photos, propaganda to show U.S. military might and strategy in incredibly harsh conditions, all in the midst of the Cold War. Bierman showed videos of men going about their daily lives in the underground, frozen city, which was eventually abandoned in 1966 when its snow and ice walls began shifting, expanding, and crushing the buildings.

“They didn’t take it out. They left everything there,” Bierman told the audience. “So sitting in the Greenland ice sheet is a camp a thousand feet by a thousand feet, full of buildings, lead paint, PCBs, diesel fuel, generators, machinery, they left it all there.” Millions of liters of human waste and at least tens of thousands of liters of radioactive wastewater remain in the ice sheet.

As rising global temperatures contribute to ice melt, the Greenland ice sheet is shrinking, elevating sea levels globally and displacing communities. Bierman displayed a gravitational model of past, current, and future ice loss, which predicted significant ice loss in the area where Camp Century is found. With the world’s current trajectory, environmentally hazardous products from this under-ice city are expected to leak out of the snow and make their way into the greater environment and ecological cycles. 

“Camp Century is going to come out one day,” Bierman added. “The question is, when will Camp Century and everything it left behind come out? […] This wild thing of the Cold War is going to surface with whatever environmental hazards we buried then.”

The week’s lunch included a spring orzo, dill potato salad, and pickled radish salad, accompanied by a crusty loaf and followed by raspberry chocolate crumb bars. Potatoes, salad greens, and radishes came from Mighty Food Farm. Green onions and various herbs were sourced from the campus garden next to the ‘66 Environmental Center.

Log Lunch is a CES program hosted every Friday at noon. During Log Lunch, a vegetarian meal prepared by Williams students is served, followed by a talk on an environmental topic. Speakers are drawn from both the student body and faculty of Williams, as well as from local, national, and international organizations. Learn more here.