Central Sierra Climate Change Weather History


CAMP CENTURY: CITY UNDER ICE  (PART 2 OF 2) Around 1960 a secret United States military installation known as Camp Century was constructed 40 feet below the surface of the Greenland Ice Cap. Built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the camp was powered by the Army’s first field nuclear power plant.


Around 1960 a secret United States military installation known as Camp Century was constructed 40 feet below the surface of the Greenland Ice Cap. Built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the camp was powered by the Army’s first field nuclear power plant. Camp Century represented a cutting-edge laboratory where scientists conducted experiments such as radio communications; food preservation; special medical and healing problems; over-ice and under-ice transportation; and the development of better fabrics for cold weather protection. They also wanted to grow fruits and vegetables using ultraviolet lights and try hydroponic farming under the ice.

Camp Century was powered by the PM-2A, the U.S. Army’s first portable nuclear power plant.

Surprisingly, this wasn’t the first time humans had tried to survive the severe weather on the Greenland Ice Cap by burrowing below the surface. During the winter of 1930-31, German Astronomer and Meteorologist Alfred Wegener spent the winter there, living and working in a subsurface shelter he cut out of the ice. Unfortunately, it was Wegener’s last Greenland expedition as he died there of heart failure due to the strenuous environment. Camp Century, however, was much more sophisticated than a simple hole in the ground as it housed a complex of barracks and laboratory buildings in four different levels of ice tunnels, and accommodated up to 250 persons. As a multi-purpose lab, the camp supported nearly 100 research projects over a two-year time span.

Among the projects underway at Camp Century was the development of over-snow tranportation vehicles. Large tires provided a measure of safety against falling into crevasses and “float” over loose snow.

Two of the “Ice Worms,” as Camp Century residents were called, were Dr. Robert W. Gerdel, a physicist and engineer who established the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory (CSSL) at Norden, California, in 1946, and B. Lyle Hansen, another brilliant scientist who also conducted research of the Sierra snowpack at the CSSL. As the lead environmental researcher at Camp Century, Dr. Gerdel played an important role in many ambitious projects tested there, including tunnel stabilization technologies, experimental aircraft landings on ice and snow, as well as continuing the snow physics research he had started at the CSSL on Donner Pass.

As lead research scientist at Camp Century, Dr. Robert Gerdel brought expertise and experience he gained from years studying the Sierra snowpack on Donner Pass. Despite being deaf from a botched tonsillectomy operation when he was a boy, Gerdel enjoyed a long and accomplished career as America’s Chief  of the Climatic and Environmental Research Branch for the U.S. Army’s Snow, Ice and Permafrost Research agency. 

Physicist Hansen earned assignments in Greenland that included developing a radiometer system to detect potentially deadly, hidden crevasses in the ice sheet, and engineering the first thermal drill with a hollow, electrically heated head to demonstrate the feasibility of recovering samples from deep within the ice sheet. The yearly layers in the extracted cores can be dated both by counting each layer — much as the age of a tree is determined by counting its growth rings — and by isotope dating of bubbles of ancient air trapped when the ice was formed.

Thermal drill in operation in Camp Century ice tunnel.

The data obtained in these early drilling projects led to the discovery of previous, rapid climate change cycles and represented a huge leap forward in the science of paleoclimatology. The discovery of natural oscillations in greenhouse gases found in the trapped air of polar ice was considered one of the most important advances in the field of climate and earth science at that time.

Scientists B. Lyle Hansen (left) and Chet Langway study an ice core sample extracted from the Greenland Ice Sheet. The CRREL emblem on their jackets stands for Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, a scientific agency based in Hanover, New Hampshire. (A more recent core extraction in Antarctica drilled in 2001 and 2002, chronicled climate there back 800,000 years, which includes our most recent ice age and seven more before that.)

Within a few years of the initial drilling at Camp Century, scientists had bored down from the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet nearly two miles to its bedrock interface, and removed an ice core that represented 110,000 years of climate data. Hidden in the deep layers of ice were samples of the earth’s ancient atmosphere, clues to volcanic and climatic factors that led to past ice ages. Scientists learned that past climates have been wildly variable, with larger, faster changes than anything industrial or agricultural humans have ever faced. Triggers that have caused dramatic climate change include changes in the tilt of the Earth’s axis, wobbles in its orbit, surges of great ice sheets, and sudden reversals in ocean circulation, among others.

Engineers at Camp Century filled over-sized tires with fuel so they wouldn’t have to haul drums of it on sleds behind their vehicles as they traveled across the ice sheet.  Once the fuel was consumed, the tires were filled with air.

Anthropogenic global warming is a hot topic these days, and scientists often look to the distant past to see what may lie ahead in the future. Much of what we know about prehistoric climate is due to the hard work conducted by Camp Century Ice Worms like Dr. Robert Gerdel and B. Lyle Hansen, two men who cut their teeth on Sierra snow.

Entrance to Camp Century. One of the reasons that the operation was shut down was because the constant movement of the Greenland Ice Sheet destorted the tunnel system and required personnel to regularly shave ice from the deformed walls and ceilings.

For more info on Dr. Gerdel’s work at the Central Sierra Snow Lab, click here:





By Mark McLaughlin

Mark McLaughlin is an award-winning, nationally published author, photographer and professional speaker with 7 books and more than 900 articles in print. Mark has lived at Lake Tahoe for 40+ years and is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip guide. Mark has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel, The Weather Channel, the BBC, and in many historical documentaries.

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