Climate Change



The first significant winter storm in nearly
2 months delivered heavy rain to the Tahoe-Sierra on Thursday followed by lowering
snow levels over the past 24 hours. Considering rainfall plus the new
snow’s liquid content, nearly 3 inches of water drenched the high country near
the Sierra Crest. Some locations on the West Slope picked up more than 5 inches or rain.

Snowfall amounts were a bit disappointing due
to the warm nature of the storm: much of the moisture fell as rain below 7,500
feet. Lake Tahoe resorts reported totals of 8 to 12 inches of new snow, with a maximum at
Heavenly Valley ski area where 2 feet fell on its upper mountain. Despite the storm, California’s snowpack is still only about 12% of normal for this time of year. 

This winter storm would normally be worth
little mention, but in an extremely dry winter like this one, the desiccated Sierra
watershed needs every drop or flake. The natural snow will enhance existing skiing
and boarding terrain already open due to snowmaking, but it is unlikely to make
much of a difference off-piste and in the trees. 

Northern California receives the bulk of its precipitation between Thanksgiving and Easter and these wet months are critical for establishing the Sierra snowpack which provides much of the Golden State’s water supply. The weather this winter has been so dry that Sacramento just set an all-time record for consecutive days with no precipitation during the rainy season — 52 days. (From Dec. 7, 2013 to Jan. 28, 2014.)


In late January 2014, the Sierra Crest has bare-bones snow cover. Looking north from Alpine Meadows ski area past Squaw Valley and towards Donner Pass.

North and east facing slopes hold snow better than west or south aspects. Depicted is Alpine Bowl at the Alpine Meadows resort. Best to stay on the groomed runs.


The 2014 Tahoe ski season has been mostly a man-made affair with pressurized snow guns saving the day. Rumors are spreading that Vail-owned Northstar-at-Tahoe has run out of water and its snowmaking operations will be limited moving forward.

Much has been made of the extremely dry nature of the 2013 calendar year as the driest in many parts of California. However, hydrologists, meteorologists, and water management agencies all use valuations based on a “water year” which better reflects the nature of California’s Mediterranean climate of hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters. The use of a calendar year may not be consistent  with how water is measured seasonally, but it does illustrate the unprecedented lack of precipitation over the past year or two.

This infrared satellite image from 4 kilometers perfectly illustrates the stubborn high pressure ridge that has been keeping California sunny and dry for nearly 2 years now. The semi-permanent ridge normally migrates south or splits during winter months to allow weather systems into the West Coast. Note how Pacific storms ride up and over the clockwise circulation of the high and then plunge south into the heartland of the nation. This is part of the atmospheric pattern that has delivered record cold and snow to the Midwest and East Coast this winter.  

Skiers are complaining that 2014 is the worst winter in memory. Note the lack of cover away from the man-made snowmaking at Alpine Meadows from two weeks ago.

Just two years ago, however, snow conditions were even worse at Alpine Meadows at the same time of year.

Donner Ski Ranch near Donner Pass has yet to open this winter due to lack of snow cover.

Boreal Mountain Resort near Donner Pass relies heavily on snowmaking and slope grooming which has paid off handsomely this winter. Billed as the Tahoe resort closest to Sacramento, Boreal has the greatest percentage of terrain open in the Tahoe-Sierra.

It’s been bone-dry in Southern California also, but while Northern California communities are already into voluntary 20% water rationing with possible mandatory restrictions soon to come, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is at record storage throughout its whole system. Lawns there will stay green, pools full, and cars washed and shiny. The dichotomy is made possible by massive water imports from Northern California and the Colorado River. The issue has been a contentions issue between the two regions for more than a century.

UPDATE! Today (1-31-14) California announced that, due to severe drought conditions, it is halting all water deliveries through its massive State Water Project until further notice. The system supplies 25 million residents and irrigates 750,000 acres of farmland. The total cancellation is unprecedented in the State Water Project’s 54-year history. 



Climate Change Weather History



In response to a provocative prediction for accelerated California climate change that I read in the Sacramento Bee newspaper last week, I felt compelled to contribute the following blog to the dialogue.

Warnings about regional climate change were kicked up a notch earlier this month with the recently released report by Robert Shibatani, a Sacramento-based hydrologist who is also CEO of The Shibatani Group Inc.

This new analysis offers dire predictions for the Sierra snowpack based on projected warming temperatures in California. The report, “Accelerated Climate Change: How a Shifting Flow Regime is Redefining Water Governance in California” focuses on the challenge of managing the Golden State’s water resources as snowmelt and river flow patterns are altered in forced global warming conditions.

It should be understood from the start that according to the Shibatani Group website, the company is “an international leader at assessing, documenting, and explaining the implications of forced climate change, climatic variability, and what that means to water supply and water resource[s]…” Since the group provides professional services and preemptive planning for watershed management based on climate change, the company has a vested interest in the field.

If Sacramento-based hydrologist Robert Shibatani’s projections verify, California is in for some “interesting times.”

Shibatani’s projections are derived from numerous sources that include a 2011 U.S. Bureau of Reclamation-released document on western climate risk assessments. In his base assessment, Shibatani assumes a rapid 2 degree Celsius (3.6F) warming over the temperature averages from the 1961-1990 timeframe. Air temperature is expected to steadily increase in the 21st century, but this report assumes that a dramatic temperature departure “is likely to occur in the next decade,” which explains the “accelerated climate change” reference in the title.

Based on such quick warming over the next 10 years or so, Shibatani anticipates a greater than 50 percent reduction in the Sierra snowpack’s April 1 water content (known as the snow water equivalent (SWE)), by the early 2020s. As a hydrologist, it’s an event he considers of “Katrina-esque proportions.” He states that the only difference between a catastrophic flood event and his prediction of a significantly depleted snowpack within a decade or so “is that it will happen every year and with increasing severity, representing a permanent change.”

The Sacramento River drains Northern California’s main snowpack producing regions. North State provides much of the water that Southern Californians rely upon. Climate change may impact that established system.

Climatologists are not predicting a significant shift in the average amount of precipitation California receives each year, but Shibatani argues that much more of it will be in the form of rain as rapidly warming temperatures drive the freezing level (snow level) much higher. His forecast for future decades is even more ominous. By the 2050’s, the report projects a 76 percent reduction in April 1 SWE for the Sacramento watershed fed by the Sierra and northern mountains.

The amount of water that falls in the Sacramento watershed is expected to remain more or less the same, but the snowpack will cover less terrain and the timing of peak Sierra runoff will be earlier and of shorter duration. 

If Shibatani’s expectations are realized,  by the 2070s April 1 runoff will drop 90 percent compared to the 1990s.

An accelerated change of this magnitude would be disastrous for California and create tough challenges for Tahoe resorts, but Shibatani may be getting ahead of himself with the rapid extinction of the Sierra snowpack. Yes, over the past 100 years daily air temperatures at Tahoe City have trended warmer, with overnight lows up more than 4 degrees F. and daily maximums up almost 2 degrees since 1910.

However, over the last 10 years temperatures in Tahoe City have actually trended cooler, a change that was reflected in the updated 1981-2010 climate “normals” released in July 2011 by the National Climatic Data Center. The average daily temp in Tahoe City dropped a half degree; not much but not a warming trend either. At the Truckee Ranger Station, the new normal is cooler by one full degree.

Note the parabolic downward trend over the past decade in Truckee’s daily temperatures.

The new precipitation values have also changed. At Tahoe City precipitation has increased during the last decade, with the new normal up 1.6 inches to 32.66 inches, reflecting very wet winters during the early 1980s and the mid-1990s, which offset the worst drought in history during the late 1980s and early 90s. Average precipitation at the Truckee Ranger Station also increased, but only about half an inch. (Precipitation includes rain plus snow melted for liquid content.)

What NOAA calls “normal” is actually based on the most recent 30-year time span, not the whole period of record. Similar to the decadal Census Bureau cycle, every 10 years NOAA drops the oldest decade and updates new station “normals” by adding the most recent decade and adjusting the average.


At the Central Sierra Snow Lab at 6,900 feet near Donner Pass, the duration of the snowpack on the ground has not changed meaningfully since measurements began in 1946.

There were some other noteworthy adjustments in this most recent climate update which, at least temporarily, contradicts Shibatani’s conclusion that the Golden State is on an accelerated pace for warmer temperatures.

The NWS took a look at 6 key climate stations in California, ranging from Redding Airport south to Modesto Airport. Daily temperatures went down at 4 of the 6 sites, averaging about half a degree. Only Modesto and Redding were warmer.










Climate Change Weather History



Working as a forecaster for the National Weather Service is not a job for the meek, especially if your zone of responsibility includes a region like the volatile Central Sierra. But there have never been so many tools in the arsenal of a professional meteorologist: satellites, buoys, radar, and complex computer modeling all feed into the mix before forecasts are issued.

When predicting high and low temperatures days in advance, weather professionals use climate averages to help base their forecast. Building up and maintaining databases of daily measurements for thousands of locations requires a complex network of automated sensors, official weather stations, and an extensive web of volunteer observers.

In the far western United States, with its challenging topography and myriad microclimates, it’s a vital network that took a century and a half to develop. The very first scientific records of weather, water and climate in the western United States were collected during the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

That epic journey by the “Corp of Discovery” vastly increased the knowledge of flora, fauna, geography, geology, native peoples, trade possibilities and routes of the western wilderness. Reports from that expedition also informed politicians, scientists, and the general public that the land and weather “out west” were substantially different than what most of contemporary Americans knew at the time.

In California there is no evidence that Spanish, Mexican, or indigenous peoples attempted to accurately measure temperature or precipitation. The Spanish missions in California left no thermometer readings, but they kept track of annual wheat harvest production and how much seed was planted, which can help indicate abnormal wet or dry seasons.

It appears that the first instrumental weather observations in California were taken by Captain Frederick W. Beechey during a visit to Yerba Buena (San Francisco) in November and December 1826. Beechey, a British naval officer, anchored in San Francisco Bay during his four year exploration of the Pacific and Bering Strait. Capt. Beechey kept a detailed diary during his stay in Yerba Buena that not only included temperature and rainfall, but also atmospheric pressure, tides, and even magnetic variations.

British naval officer Captain Beechey among the first to document California weather.

During his 1826 reconnaissance of San Francisco Bay, Capt. Beechey and his crew experienced early winter weather. In his Dec. 3 diary entry, the captain noted “As we left the harbor of San Francisco, the shore of which, being newly clothed with snow, had a very wintry appearance.”

In 1812, the Russians had established two settlements along the California coast north of San Francisco Bay. From 1836 to 1840, weather diaries were kept at Fort Ross, with temperature observations made three times a day, as well as air pressure, cloud cover, rain, hail and fog.

Fort Ross is now a California State Park

In the politically charged six years leading up to the 1846 Mexican-American War, no regular weather observations were recorded in California. American sailors conducted detailed weather observations for a time during the fight against Mexico, but the record ended when U.S. warships and troops stationed in Monterey and San Francisco bays were deployed to San Diego and points south.

Several American warships anchored in Monterey and San Francisco bays briefly kept weather records during the 1846-1848 Mexican-American War.

The first temperature reading published in a California newspaper appeared in San Francisco’s California Star in September 1847, noting “a week of hot and calm weather; 92 degrees in the shade.”

After the establishment of a U.S. military base at the Presidio in San Francisco in 1847, the post’s Army Surgeon was required to maintain a “Diary of the Weather” using a thermometer and rain gauge. These scattered and intermittent attempts at taking California’s temperature were of limited value for understanding day to day weather for agricultural and mining purposes.

Ultimately, continuous, long-term weather observations got started with the first wave of forty-niners as they invaded San Francisco in the Gold Rush. Medical doctors played a prominent role when they arrived with delicate instruments and the knowledge of how to use them.

Trained men of science like Dr. G.H. Gibbons and Dr. T.M. Logan would compile reliable observations, but it’s Thomas Tennent who’s recognized as the first person in California to establish a record of daily weather measurements shortly after his arrival in San Francisco.

Sergeant James A. Barwick was an observer with the U.S. Signal Corps in Sacramento, Director of the California Weather Service and Meteorologist to the State Board of Agriculture. In 1892 Barwick was concerned about improper weather station and instrument siting among cooperative observers that could skew weather statistics. The same issues crop up today among climate change skeptics.  

Tennent was a skilled craftsman from Philadelphia who made nautical and mathematical instruments for sea-faring ships. It had taken him 95 days to journey from Philadelphia to San Francisco via the Panama Canal — he walked the last 110 miles from Monterey.

Upon arrival, Tennent ordered weather instruments from the East and began his official observations in August 1849, and maintained daily measurements until February 1871, an impressive 22 year effort. He supplied his meteorological data to local newspapers, which were eventually published in Tennent’s Nautical Almanac.

U.S. Signal Service Station and Sacramento headquarters of the Meteorological Department of the State Agricultural Society. Note weather instruments on roof. Not surprisingly, average wind speeds dropped in many cities, including the “Windy City” Chicago, Illinois, when anemometers were removed from the tops of buildings.

Along with Sacramento and San Diego, San Francisco is among California cities with the longest weather records. Appropriate for a town where its beloved San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen once wrote, “A city where you can get a sunburn in the fog and pneumonia in the sun, freeze during baseball season and swelter during football, and read any morning that ‘it was the coldest day since last August.’”



Climate Change Weather History



Remember this past winter when instead of enjoying winter sports, people were riding bicycles and hiking well into the 2012 ski season? How different it would have been for the regional economy if we could have managed to temporarily change the stubborn dry weather pattern from calm to stormy.

During the dry winter of 2012, Tahoe resorts deployed snow guns to stay open. 

Mankind’s quixotic quest to influence weather is as old as civilization itself, but scientists today can be successful in coaxing enhanced precipitation from clouds when atmospheric conditions are favorable. Ground-based and aerial cloud seeding over the Sierra can increase precipitation from any given storm by up to 15 percent. That is not a trivial amount.

During the El Niño-influenced winter of 1998, seed-dispensing aircraft and five ground-based generators were able to produce almost 15,000 acre feet of water in the Tahoe area before seeding was suspended in February— enough to supply 15,000 suburban households with a year’s worth of water.

Weather modification has always generated controversary. Reno Evening Gazette, Dec. 11, 1950.

Private entrepreneurs, public utilities, and government agencies have been seeding Sierra skies with dry ice, silver iodide, and other particulates since the 1950s and in the Lake Tahoe region since the 1960s. For seeding to be successful, clouds must contain supercooled water—water that has remained liquid at below-freezing temperatures. Introducing nuclei into the supercooled water accelerates the production of ice crystals that fall as snow or melt into rain drops. Increasing precipitation with cloud seeding is based on sound science and in the arid west is a far cheaper method of increasing water supplies than buying water on the open market.

Jim “JB” Budny standing on the lip of Upper Yosemite Falls during the severe 1975-77 drought. At age 20 I was insane enough to climb out onto the sheer granite face for this photo. That won’t happen again!

One of the first Sierra cloud seeders was Bob Symons, based in Bishop, California. In 1946, a General Electric research scientist discovered how dry ice initiated precipitation in lab experiments. During a winter dry spell in 1948, executives at California Electric and Power Company were concerned about the lack of snowpack in the southern Sierra and the utility’s hydroelectric energy commitments.

Since no one had done cloud seeding in the region before, a Cal-Electric engineer secretly contacted Symons to see if he would be willing to try some “hush hush” weather modification. Ironically, several months before Symons had shaved a load of dry ice himself and tossed it from his plane. It snowed!

When ignited, wing-mounted hygroscopic flares disperse cloud seeding agents.

For two winters Cal-Electric and Bob Symons worked in tight secrecy on the project. People in Bishop knew something was going on because virtually every time Symons flew his plane, it seemed to rain or snow. However, the whole town kept the experiment secret for two years, including the publisher of Bishop’s newspaper, until March 1950 when the project was revealed as a well-documented success.

In addition to enhancing precipitation, modern-day weather modification efforts include using seeding to mitigate hailstorm formation, dissipating ground fog near airports, and, more controversially, weakening hurricanes by dosing cloud-tops to alter circulation.

Historically, “rainmakers” have also included those who claimed that they could protect farmers from destructive hailstorms. In the U.S. alone, crop losses from hailstorms average a half billion dollars annually, but it’s a worldwide problem.

Legendary rainmaker William F. Wright, a University of Nebraska professor, designed these anti-hail cannons in the 1890s.

Using artillery to disrupt hailstorm formation has been around since 1890. Their use in the United States reached its heyday in the early 20th century when meteorologists debunked it, but in recent years several companies have reintroduced “anti-hail cannons” back into the market. The new cannons automatically load and reload, and can be remotely controlled and fired. Each gun costs about $60,000, and that doesn’t include the recommended radar component.

Modern anit-hail cannons are designed to work with radar for greater effectiveness.

Many scientists are skeptical of anti-hail weapons, but there are 20 cannon sites in California alone, and there is one in Mississippi where a Japanese automobile manufacturer has installed the cannons to protect new cars at their plant.

Classic convective downburst “foot” indicative of strong outflow. Cells like this are known for producing graupel (snow pellets) which occur when snowflakes get coated with super-cooled water. (April 12, 2012) 



Climate Change Weather History



This March, Lake Tahoe finally had a decent month of rain and snow worthy of the winter season. However, the April 2 snow survey that measured the liquid equivalent in the Sierra snowpack came in at a disappointing 55 percent of normal. One above-average month of rain and snow wasn’t enough to make up for this mostly bone dry season. This graph represents an average of how much precipitation has fallen in the Northern Sierra since October 1, the beginning of the water year.

Blue line represents this winter. Note huge spike in precipitation during March. Red line indicates last winter’s profile. Note how precipitation continued to add up well into June.

The early April survey is considered the most important of the year since the snowpack usually peaks at this time, just before it begins to melt and feed the state’s streams, reservoirs and aquifers. With only one month left with statistical chances for much precipitation before the storm season shuts down for good, it’s too late to bring on the Indian “snow-dance” or call in professional rainmakers like days of yore.

Avid fans of the American rock group Widespread Panic are familiar with their tune “Hatfield.” The song spins a tale about an early 20th century rainmaker named Charles Hatfield who was famous for producing moisture during extended droughts. In December 1915, San Diego’s city council promised to pay Hatfield the Rainmaker $10,000 if he could generate enough precipitation to break a four-year dry spell that had dessicated local reservoirs.

In the contract, Hatfield stated: “I will produce enough rain to fill the Morena Reservoir to overflowing, between now and next December [1916], for the sum of $10,000. I will deliver the first 30 inches of rainfall at no charge (San Diego averages just over 10 inches of rain per year). But you will pay me $500 per inch, for the next 20 inches. Should I fail to deliver as promised, I ask for no compensation whatever.” It was a bold, brash statement but incredibly, Hatfield would be good to his word, and then some!

Hatfield was a “pluviculturist,” a term coined by a Stanford University professor to describe the type of pseudo-scientific quackery regarding weather modification that was popular in the decades around the turn of the 20th century. These “weather wizards” traveled around the country, boasting about the efficacy of their proprietary chemical brews, strange machinery, and artillery firepower used to bring the rain. Each flimflam artist took a different approach to rain making; whether unleashing fusillades of cannon fire into the atmosphere, stirring up chemical concoctions that wafted into the air, or cranking dynamos to send electric charges up long metal wires suspended by balloons rising into the clouds, all in hopes of pulling water from the sky.

“Weather Wizard” using electricity to coax rain from clouds, circa 1880. 

Mankind’s quixotic quest to influence weather is as old as civilization itself. Best known among America’s huckster rainmakers was “Professor” Charles Mallory Hatfield. Born in Kansas about 1875, the sewing machine salesman had no formal education beyond ninth grade. By 1902, young Hatfield was studying weather records and finding work as a noted rain engineer in San Diego and Los Angeles. In early December 1904, he approached some L.A. business interests with a proposal to guarantee 18 inches of rain by April 1905 in exchange for $1,000. Hatfield seemed to take a big risk betting his reputation on this contract, but when 18 inches had fallen by the deadline and the money paid, the public and press began to take Hatfield much more seriously. The following year he earned $250 from Grass Valley-based South Yuba Water Company when he broke a dry spell with a 4.5 inch deluge.

Charles Hatfield studied weather and climate patterns to enhance his chances for success.

Hatfield’s reputation was based on fortuitous rains that seemed to follow his “treatments,” as well as his simple, down-to-earth approach. Many would-be rainmakers were con-men trying to separate desperate, drought-stricken farmers from their hard-earned cash. Hatfield, however, had a marketing advantage over most of them. He came across as being honest and a straight-shooter. Unlike other flamboyant shysters who relied on flashy pyrotechnics and other outlandish methods meant to dazzle their clients, Hatfield was modest. He said, “I do not make rain. That would be an absurd claim. I simply attract clouds and they do the rest.”

It seemed that Hatfield really believed that his approach was an effective weather producer. In reality, as someone knowledgeable about weather and climate, he calculated that it would probably rain anyway within the time parameters of the contracts he offered. Hatfield, assisted by his brother Paul, erected tall towers topped by large wooden containers filled with a noxious, gas-producing brew. Hatfield claimed that certain chemicals stimulated by electricity, when released into the atmosphere, could increase rainfall, a concept similar to how fertilizer applied to crops boosted production. Although Hatfield said that the odor was mild, one farmer observed, “These gases smell so bad that it rains in self-defense.” Hatfield said, “I have nothing to do with bombs, dynamite or explosives of any kind whatever.” His low-key approach stood out in stark contrast against his competition.

Charles Hatfield stands before his rain towers near Hemet, California, 1912.

By the time Hatfield cut the deal with the San Diego Chamber of Commerce in Dec. 1915, he had been disparaged as a fraud by the U.S. Weather Bureau, but he was big news all across the country. After negotiations with civic leaders, Hatfield withdrew his commitment to produce 30 inches of rain, but promised to fill the city’s depleted reservoir system for $10,000. Although a formal agreement was never drawn up or signed by the town council, by early January Hatfield had built a tower near the Morena Reservoir and his brew was wafting into the sky. The first heavy rain storm hit on Jan. 10, followed by days of persistent showers that led to even more intense downpours that lasted much of the month. No one had ever seen such rain, but Hatfield continued to work his magic up in the mountains, about 60 miles east of San Diego. Near Hatfield’s tower, nearly 13 inches of precipitation fell in just four days.

The unusual tempest temporarily halted a Panama-California Exposition being held in Balboa Park. The weather also forced officials to cancel opening day races at the new Agua Caliente Race Track in Tijuana. Rising waters throughout the region began washing away bridges, marooning passenger trains, and flooding homes. Despite the deluge, Hatfield used a telephone to call City Hall from his remote location at Morena: “I just wanted to tell you that it is only sprinkling now. Within the next few days I expect to make it rain right…just hold your horses until I show you a real rain.”

Heavy rain in January 1916 washed out bridges and stranded trains.

Meanwhile, San Diego engineers watched nervously as torrents of water poured into the regional reservoirs; Morena, Chollas, and Upper and Lower Otay lakes. Operators warned that despite huge releases through relief gates, several dams were at risk for failure due to the unprecedented inflow. Their worst fears were realized when the Lower Otay Dam collapsed and water surged out of the mountains toward the ocean, sweeping away everything in its path. Afterwards San Diego was cut-off from the outside world save for naval ships that ferried people and supplies. Fortunately, due to the sparsely populated countryside, less than 20 people died.

In addition to the Lower Otay Dam failure, water breached the Sweetwater Dam as well.

San Diego picked up 300 percent of normal rainfall for that January, but refused to pay Hatfield his $10,000 until he paid for the nearly $4 million in damages he caused. A lesson was learned, however. When San Diego hired a cloud seeder in 1948, the city took out damage insurance. As a wise man once said, “Timing has a lot to do with the outcome of a rain dance.”

Charles Hatfield may have been a con man, but his reputation for “milking the skies” hasn’t been forgotten.





Central Sierra Climate Change Weather History



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:





Central Sierra Climate Change Weather History



Fifty years ago, a secret United States military installation known as Camp Century was constructed 40 feet below the surface of the Greenland Ice Cap, just 800 miles from the North Pole. The remote outpost, buried deep under Arctic ice, was manned by more than 200 American military personnel and civilian scientists.

Camp Century’s subterranean location beneath the ice cap protected the men from some of the harshest weather on the planet. The close-knit group of academics and enlisted men stationed there conducted innovative scientific studies and breakthrough climate research in a labyrinth of rooms and tunnels embedded in advancing glacial ice.

Signs with mileage distance are posted for major cities at the subterranean Camp Century beneath the Greenland Ice Cap.

Planned as a self-sufficient, autonomous community, Camp Century represented a “moon colony” on Earth. Construction on the strategic project began in 1958 and the facility was operational by 1960. An elaborate military experiment, Camp Century was laid out with tunnels, dorms, a hospital, library, movie-theater, and other recreational amenities.

Trenches were cut using a Swiss snow miller which blew pulverized ice up to the surface. The milled snow was shoveled onto sheet metal panels arched over the tunnels where it froze solid as concrete. The water and sewage operation was unique in the world. Storms at the surface could generate wind gusts to 125 mph, with ambient air temperatures at minus 70 degrees. Despite wind chill factors nearing 150 degrees below zero, the personnel stationed at Camp Century went about their business in relative comfort.

This Swiss-made snow miller was designed to clear railroad tracks. At Camp Century, it cut trenches more than 40 feet deep.

The futuristic facility was powered by a portable 1,500 kilowatt nuclear reactor constructed in New York. Weighing 472 tons, this first-of-its-kind prefabricated nuclear plant was broken down into 27 large parts and flown to the Greenland coast. There the packaged components were sledded in 100 miles to Camp Century (thus the name). Using just 100 pounds of atomic fuel, the $6 million nuclear-powered unit displaced the 555,000 gallons of diesel fuel required to run the camp every year. Despite serious issues with excessive radiation and a multitude of problems in the steam generator system, engineers eventually overcame most obstacles.

Once trenches were cut, corrugated sheet metal arches were fit into place and then covered with freshly milled snow. After a matter of hours, the “snowcrete” roof became rock-hard and the panels were removed and used elsewhere.

The origin of Camp Century had its roots in the late 1940s during the American-Russian Cold War, when the U. S. government decided to establish strategic, manned installations in the world’s Polar Regions. The shortest distance between Washington, D.C. and Moscow is across the Arctic Circle, and Greenland was considered a favorable location for an early warning defense system against incoming Soviet missiles.

The men who lived and worked at Camp Century proudly called themselves “Ice Worms.” Two Greenland Ice Worms were former staff members from the Central Sierra Snow Lab (CSSL) near Donner Pass; scientists Dr. Robert Gerdel and B. Lyle Hansen. This “City under Ice” may conjure visions of the villain’s cavernous ice palace in the James Bond thriller “Die another Day,” but Camp Century was the real deal, where the extraction of glacial ice cores to study prehistoric climate change (paleoclimatology) got its start.

Dr. Robert Gerdel stands in the Camp Century tunnel system, circa 1958, where the science of paleoclimatology was greatly advanced.

Based on their expertise in snow science, it’s no surprise that Dr. Gerdel and Hansen both found themselves working at Camp Century. As lead research physicist in hydrology with the U.S. Weather Bureau during the 1940s, Gerdel had established the CSSL at Soda Springs, California, as well as two other national snow labs in Oregon and Montana. B. Lyle Hansen, a brilliant engineer and physicist, arrived at the CSSL in 1950 to replace Gerdel who was being reassigned.

Dr. Gerdel’s early efforts improve our scientific understanding of the complexities of the vital Sierra snowpack laid the groundwork for a water management system that helped nourish and sustain the growth of California into an economic giant. At Camp Century Gerdel and Hansen would meet again to play an integral part in the advancement of paleoclimatology being conducted there.

Camp Century housed a complex of barracks and laboratory buildings in four different levels of ice tunnels, and accomodated up to 250 persons. As a multipurpose lab, the camp supported nearly 100 research projects over a two-year time span. 

Stay tuned for Part Two.