Benchmarks: October 1, 1960: Camp Century, a cold war ice fortress is built

by Jay R. Thompson
Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The soldiers who staffed Camp Century enjoyed many of the same accommodations as their fellow soldiers at bases around the world. They had a mess hall, a chapel, a theater, a dispensary, an emergency room and even a hobby shop, all onsite. Just like their counterparts elsewhere, Camp Century’s soldiers got out of bed, shaved, showered and went to work. However, when Camp Century personnel opened the door and walked from their quarters, they saw only one thing: snow. No sun, no moon, no sky, and no distant horizon. Just a corridor with walls, floor and ceiling made of snow.

Completed on Saturday, Oct. 1, 1960, Camp Century cost just under $8 million (in 1959 dollars) and housed 85 to 200 residents at a time while in operation. A research base built in the Greenland icecap, the nuclear-powered Camp Century was perhaps one of the more bizarre military engineering feats of the Cold War era. Although it lasted only six years, the ambitious project provided a wealth of valuable engineering lessons and resulted in pioneering contributions to climatology and other research ventures.

To a large extent, Camp Century couldn’t have happened without Thule. About 1,200 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, Thule (pronounced “Toolie”) is a settlement on the west coast of Greenland. Indigenous people have inhabited the area for centuries, and Thule served as a base and trading station for Arctic and North Pole expeditions. Notably, it was the base for five scientific expeditions between 1912 and 1924 led by Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen, who is credited with founding and naming the settlement in 1910.

As the Cold War gained momentum, the U.S. sought a location for an air base to help defend the country from air attacks from the northeast and at which long-range bombers could be refueled. Thule, about halfway between New York and Moscow by way of the North Pole, was chosen as the site. In the summer of 1951, the U.S. military sent 12,000 men and 300,000 tons of cargo to North Star Bay to begin building Thule Air Base. Men worked around the clock to build most of the base and airfield in 60 days.

Thule Air Base remains the U.S. military’s northernmost installation. The base is home to a 3-kilometer runway and the 12th Space Warning Squadron, which operates a Ballistic Missile Early Warning System designed to detect and track intercontinental ballistic missiles launched against North America. Half a century ago, it was also the staging area for the construction of Camp Century.

Camp Century was built in “an effort to learn how to construct military facilities on the Greenland Ice Cap,” according to an October 1965 report from the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL). A line of early-warning radar stations already ran through Greenland, Canada and Alaska, but, the report said, there was an urgent need to expand and improve the U.S. military presence in the Arctic region.

In the summer of 1953, four men — Robert R. Philippe from the U.S. Army’s Office of the Chief of Engineers, Paul A. Siple from the Department of the Army, Roger Pryor from the Department of Defense, and James E. Gillis of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Snow, Ice and Permafrost Research Establishment — visited Greenland to begin hashing out the challenges of building a base on the icecap. In particular, the quartet sought to figure out what materials should be used for construction, how to transport the materials and the necessary construction equipment, and how the base would be supplied with electricity and fresh water. Greenland’s harsh winters, its imposing landscape of snow and ice, and the remoteness of the base made these issues all the more complicated.

In May 1959, engineers were sent to the icecap to choose a location for the base. The name, Camp Century, was chosen because it was originally supposed to be built 100 miles (160 kilometers) from the edge of the icecap. The site that was eventually selected for Camp Century was actually 225 kilometers east of Thule and was chosen because it was the closest location to the air base that wouldn’t be affected by the summer thaw. Also, the slope of the ice there was less than 1 degree, which engineers hoped would minimize construction problems.

Engineers hemmed and hawed over whether to build a surface base or one below the surface. A surface base would be subjected to storms, drifting snow and dangerously chilling temperatures. Plus, a surface camp would eventually be buried as snow accumulated. A surface installation constructed on piles, so the buildings could be elevated via jacks as the snow-level rose, was considered but the initial cost was higher than that of a subsurface base.

In the end, a subsurface base was chosen because it would not be subject to the whims of weather. A base within the snow would be insulated from the far colder temperatures above, so keeping warm and safe would be easier. The lack of Arctic winds meant buildings need not be as strong, thereby reducing construction costs. And, of course, a subsurface base would be all-but invisible to aircraft passing overhead. But the choice presented challenges as well. Building within the icecap meant finding a way to dig tunnels big enough for dozens of men to sleep, cook, eat, bathe, work and play. And while the icecap moves at a glacial pace, it still moves, requiring regular snow-trimming to keep the distorting and migrating tunnels from damaging the facility. There was also the nuclear reactor to worry about; for much of its existence, the site was powered by a prefabricated nuclear power plant.

Army Col. John H. Kerkering was commander of the construction effort, which began in June 1959. In the months it took to build Camp Century, more than 6,000 tons of lumber, prefabricated housing, food, construction equipment and even ice cream were hauled across the icecap on sleds the size of train cars from the coast to the construction site. According to the Army-produced film, “The City Under the Ice, Camp Century,” Caterpillar tractors with extra-wide treads served as the locomotives for these trains of sleds, which moved only about 3 kilometers per hour and took 70 hours or more to reach Camp Century. Each tractor could pull 50 to 100 tons at a time. Because compasses were of little use so close to the North Pole, the caravans instead navigated the trek using trail markers. Other wheeled vehicles, along with helicopters and small airplanes, were also used to transport personnel and material to the site.

The surface base was to consist of about two dozen tunnels in a layout that looked a little like a backbone with pairs of ribs. The main communication trench served as the backbone, while the ribs were smaller trenches housing laboratories, crew quarters, recreation spaces and storage. Where the collarbone would have been, a nuclear power plant was installed.

Carving the tunnels through an icecap was a novel process; the military used Peter Plows, the same snow millers the Swiss used to clear avalanche snow from roads in the Alps. The Peter miller looked a little like a bulldozer, but with two chutes on top through which snow was expelled. Each of the three millers used could remove more than 900 cubic meters of snow per hour.

When a given trench was deep enough and about 7 meters wide, steel arches were installed, and the Peter millers dumped snow on them. After the snow hardened, the mold was removed, leaving long, hollow tunnels. Workers carefully leveled the floors of the tunnels and built wooden foundations so the warmth of the buildings wouldn’t melt the snow below. They then used prefabricated sections of walls, floors, roofs and doors to construct the facility’s buildings, most of which were about as big as a trailer-home.

The base had two ramped entrances to let people and machinery in and out, but workers also built 16 emergency escape hatches that went straight up and out of the ice. Diesel generators provided electricity to the camp while it was under construction. For water, workers used a heated water drill to bore a meter-wide well hole 36 meters down into the snow, from which 10,000 gallons of fresh water could be harvested each day.

The last trenches dug were the four deepest and widest (12 meters wide); they were excavated to house a nuclear reactor designed and built specifically for the project by ALCO Products in Schenectady, N.Y. Accounting for $5.7 million of the $8 million total cost of the base, the reactor was to be the base’s long-term power supply. Larger steel molds were used for the reactor tunnel than for the other tunnels, but aside from that the construction process was essentially the same.

Once the tunnels were completed and the snow above settled, the Arctic weather provided the finishing touch by dropping fresh snow over the construction site, leaving little clue that an entire Army base was operating along thousands of meters of tunnels several meters below the surface.

Camp Century was completed Oct. 1, 1960, except for the nuclear power plant, which was up and running by early 1961. Ice core research at Camp Century would later contribute to our understanding of paleoclimatology and to improved techniques for isotopic analysis. In 1966, a CRREL team at Camp Century was the first to drill to the bottom of the Greenland icecap — 1,387 meters deep, according to the laboratory’s publication “CRREL’s First 25 Years: 1961-1986.” The team included Herbert Ueda, John Kalafut, Donald Garfield, and was led by Lyle Hansen. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the project took several years and, for the first time, provided researchers with 120,000 years of continuous climatic history. The feat wasn’t repeated for 15 years, and scientists all over the world have used dust, air pockets, chemicals and trace metals in the Camp Century core to reconstruct previous climates. But the experiment of Camp Century itself didn’t last as long as planned.

The nuclear reactor was shut down in 1963 and removed in 1964, according to Nikolaj Petersen, a historian and political scientist at Aarhus University in Denmark. In a 2008 article, “The Iceman that Never Came,” in the Scandinavian Journal of History, Petersen noted that the nuclear reactor suffered from the same problem as the rest of the camp — the unexpectedly high rate of icecap deformation. “In the summer of 1962, the ceiling of the reactor room had drooped so low that it had to be lifted five feet to avoid fatal contact with the reactor,” Petersen wrote. “Subsequently Camp Century was reduced to a summer camp in 1964 and abandoned altogether in 1966.”

No one has visited Camp Century since its abandonment, according to public affairs staff at CRREL, NORAD, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and NOAA. Camp Century’s flimsy buildings are likely being pulverized in slow motion by Greenland’s ice sheet. Other, deeper ice cores have since been drilled near the summit of Greenland’s ice, as well as in Antarctica.

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