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These Insane Photos Show How An Abandoned Air Force Base Is Polluting Greenland

Photographer Ken Bower traveled to the remote island to photograph the damage.

by Louise Matsakis
May 3 2016, 11:00am

Image: Ken Bower

The United States government has a habit of abandoning military bases after it's done with them, but Greenland's Bluie East Two is arguably one of the craziest camps that's ever been left behind. The US established "Bluie" (the codename for Greenland) East Two as an airbase in 1941, during World War II, to defend Greenland from a possible German invasion. By 1947, it was discarded, leaving behind thousands of fuel-filled barrels and asbestos-laced buildings.

The remains of the base have been polluting one of the most pristine and remote environments in the world ever since, and New York City-based photographer Ken Bower traveled there last year to capture the damage. To date, there have been no efforts to clean up the base, according to Bower, although the US Coast Guard traveled to the region in 2013 to search for a plane that went missing during the war, 70 years ago. I spoke to Bower about his trip to the remote island:

Image: Ken Bower

Motherboard: How did you find out that Bluie East Two existed? Had you ever been to Greenland before?

Ken Bower: I found out about Bluie East Two through my research about the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. I'm always researching projects in those regions. I have only been to Greenland on two occasions; in 2014 and 2015. I spent three to four weeks in Greenland during each trip.

How did you learn about the base's nickname, "American Flowers"?

One of the locals in the village [Kulusuk] told me about the nickname. From a distance, the rusted barrels look like flower beds when the sun shines on them. As you get close to the base, it's anything but flowers.

Image: Ken Bower

What was it like there? How remote is the location? Who helped you?

The base is a bizarre, sad place. Greenland is a pristine environment, and it's quite shocking to see such a beautiful landscape with about 10,000 fuel barrels and other rusted remains.

The base is incredibly remote. One of my friends who lives in Kulusuk brought me there by boat. I went back much earlier in the season in 2015 so there would still be snow on the ground.

I wanted some snow in my photos in order to provide contrast between the land and the rusted remains. There was also a lot of ice in the fjords and I wasn't sure if I would make it at all. It took three attempts over six days to get dropped off at the base. On our second attempt we spent nearly eight hours trying to get there. At times we would drive the 22' fiberglass boat up onto the ice and push it to the other side to get to open water.

Image: Ken Bower

How long did you camp there?

I camped out for two days in 2014. I was planning to stay at the base for five days in 2015. However, due to the ice conditions, I couldn't get picked up until the eighth day. The fjord was choked with ice on day five and I knew I wouldn't get picked up. I didn't even bother to pack up my stuff. I realized it would probably be at least a few days until someone could pick me up.

I had about two weeks of food with me and I was prepared to stay much longer, if need be. It's also quite easy to find food; such as picking mussels at low tide, and fishing. I got all of my water from a glacial river.

On the eighth day, I heard two boats approaching from the north. One landed on shore and the captain couldn't speak English, but he knew my name and waved me over. He showed me a text message on his cell phone from my friend, which said: "Ken we have been trying to get you for a few days but there is too much ice. Go with my uncle and he will take you south." I hopped on his boat and he took me south where we met up with my friend in the middle of the ice-choked fjord. I got on my friend's boat and eventually made it back to the village of Kulusuk.

Image: Ken Bower

Did anything surprise you about the region?

Shortly after I shot one of these pictures, the skies cleared and the temperature quickly rose about 15 – 20°F. It turned out to be one of the warmest days of my trip; roughly 60 degrees. About 30 to 45 minutes later, I heard a drum beat which occurred every few minutes or so. The fuel in the barrels was expanding and the sound was from the lids popping outward. This led me to believe far more barrels are filled than I originally thought. I was shocked to see so much asbestos shingles and asbestos pipe insulation. Asbestos was a very common housing material at the time. It is now laying in crumpled piles, along with with the debris from the collapsed buildings, which once housed the servicemen.

Image: Ken Bower

Has climate change impacted the base? Are more fuel barrels now visible because of the changing environment?

Climate change has not impacted the base itself. However, the locals have [reported noticing] change in the region. Their hunting season on the ice has been shortened due to climate change. There are limited amounts of imported goods, and they're very expensive, so the people in the region depend on hunting and fishing.

Image: Ken Bower

What made you want to photograph this place? Where else have you photographed?

I have always been drawn to remote places in the far north where the light, land and sea meet. However, I wanted to find a project with more purpose to it. When I found out about Bluie East Two, I was quite surprised it wasn't [already] published in a major publication. The more research I did, the more I knew I had to get there and photograph it. Most of my photography projects have been in the Arctic, sub-Arctic, and Nordic regions. In September, I will be in a five-week artist residency continuing a project on Nordic culture.