Categories
Climate Change Weather History

#233 WEATHER MODIFICATION: SCIENCE OR SNAKE OIL?

TAHOE NUGGET #233: WEATHER MODIFICATION: SCIENCE OR SNAKE OIL?

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) 

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Categories
Weather History

#232 ESPY: THE ORIGINAL STORM KING

TAHOE NUGGET #232: JAMES P. ESPY: THE ORIGINAL STORM KING

I first came across the Storm King moniker in the 1980s while researching 19th century newspapers for information on Sierra winter storms. In the late 1800s it was common for editors to capture the reader’s attention with headlines like “Railroad Battles Storm King.”

The Storm King headline would be followed by a riveting account of heroic railroad crews fighting against the violent Storm King, who wielded weapons of heavy snow, deadly avalanches, extreme wind and biting cold.

When wild weather overwhelmed the railroad, news articles would describe train blockades, derailments, and other calamities. Depending on the newspaper, sometimes the stories were accompanied by advertisements touting the “Storm King” brand of weather-proof boots and jackets for those who worked outdoors.

Daily Nevada State Journal, January 10, 1890

Years later I discovered the story about James Pollard Espy, the first official meteorologist to the U.S. government, who the press had dubbed “The Storm King.” According to one account, during his long, esteemed career, Espy became known as the “Old Storm King,” as much for his argumentative style as his significant scientific accomplishments.

Born in 1785, Espy taught school in several states before settling in Philadelphia in 1820, where he transformed the city’s Franklin Institute into the nation’s vanguard of weather science. By 1836, Espy developed a theory that storms were caused by moist air heated by the earth’s surface. It rises in a column that eventually cools, condenses and forms clouds. The so-called latent heat trapped within the air is released by condensation, which often leads to clouds, wind, and precipitation. (Espy’s concept of convection is now accepted as part of modern meteorology.)

In 1842, James Pollard Espy was appointed by Congress to become the first offical meteorologist to the United States government.

These were challenging times for scientists attempting to study the physical processes and internal dynamics of weather systems. At the time, unpredicted storms often caused catastrophic loss of life and widespread damage, and pioneer weathermen were scrambling to figure out how improve forecasting.

The rudimentary concept of the counterclockwise circulation of low pressure systems in the Northern Hemisphere was still not proven. Scientists didn’t know how storms formed or traveled. Prevailing thought held that storms traveled in the direction the wind blew. Even the brilliant Benjamin Franklin was at a loss to explain why winds during a storm blew from the northeast even as the low pressure worked its way northeastward from Philadelphia to Boston.

The United States started developing a fledgling weather service before the Civil War

While Espy was developing his theory, William Redfield, a self-taught American weather aficionado, had been working on his own research. After visiting the aftermath of a hurricane that ravaged New England in 1821, Redfield observed that in one location fallen trees were toppled by a southeast wind, while trees further north had been blown down by winds from the northeast. That evidence convinced Redfield that the tropical storms that sometimes walloped the East Coast were in fact massive whirlwinds that rotated as they surged up the Atlantic coast.

Pioneer meteorologist William Redfield studied typhoons in the West Indies to determine that storm winds blow in a rotary direction.

For the next decade, Redfield analyzed ship logs, interviewed shipmasters, and studied wind patterns. In 1831, his thesis containing the details of a storm’s anatomy was published in the American Journal of Science. James Espy, however, vociferously disagreed with Redfield, arguing (incorrectly) that instead of winds rotating in a circular manner, they rushed in at great speed toward a storm’s center where the rising column of air was strongest. Their heated debate went on for years.

William Redfield’s postulate would later be verified with the establishment of the telegraph system, which enabled operators to report real-time information. By 1860, there were 500 stations across the United States telegraphing data to the Smithsonian Institute, which began producing America’s first daily weather maps, and the science of forecasting had begun.

Note lack of data available for the sparsely populated western United States in this 1871 weather map.  

Ironically, Redfield and Espy died without realizing that each of them had contributed vital parts that led to a more advanced understanding of weather and storms. Perhaps more ironic is that as a weather enthusiast growing up in Philly, I never knew about Espy, the “Storm King of Philadelphia.”

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Categories
Climate Change Weather History

#231 HATFIELD THE RAINMAKER

TAHOE NUGGET #231: HATFIELD THE RAINMAKER

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.

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Categories
Avalanche! Tahoe Weather Weather History

#230 WINTER OF 1982

TAHOE NUGGET #230: WINTER OF 1982

It’s been 30 years since one of the deadliest avalanches in Sierra Nevada history broke loose at Alpine Meadows Ski Resort and killed seven people. For those of us who remember this tragic event on March 31, 1982, and the days of grief and hope that followed, it represents a benchmark in time. The 15.5 feet of snow that fell at the Central Sierra Snow Lab between March 27 and April 8, 1982, still ranks as the greatest single snowstorm total on record for Donner Summit.

Miraculously, Alpine Meadows employee Anna Conrad survived for 5 days in the avalanche debris before she was rescued. She lost parts of both legs to frostbite, but after the surgery she was fitted with prosthesis. Today, she and her husband reside at Mammoth Lakes, California, where Anna is employed as a snow hostess for the resort.

Anna (Conrad) Allen survived the 1982 avalanche at Alpine Meadows. She suffered frostbite injuries, but later moved to Mammoth Mountain where she lives with her husband.

For anyone who skis or snowboards today, whether backcountry or controlled resort, the 1982 avalanche still serves as a reminder that the rugged mountains and dynamic weather we love so much are powerful forces of nature that deserve respect and understanding.

Read a short version of the story here: Tahoe Nugget #60

The winter of ’82 was also noteworthy for an extreme precipitation event that occurred in January. From Jan. 3-5, torrential rains caused extensive damage and destruction in the lowlands of the central and northern parts of California and heavy snows fell in the highest mountains. The San Francisco-Bay Area experienced the heaviest rainfall in 25 years. On January 4, San Francisco was doused with 6.16 inches of rain which is still the greatest one day storm total there in 159 years of rainfall records. 

The Santa Cruz Mountains were inundated with 10 to 20 inches of rain in 30 hours. The National Weather Service reported more than 8 inches of rain in one day there, the greatest 24-hour rainfall since 1890 when record keeping began. Considered one of the worst storms of the century, several thousand people were flooded out of their homes and at least 33 killed. Trains derailed, schools and highways were closed, and damage was estimated at $300 million.

Avalanche path near Mt. Tallac at South Lake Tahoe.

When the saturated air mass encountered the Sierra Nevada, precipitation intensified due to topography and orographic enhancement. The Echo Summit weather station at Sierra Ski Ranch, elevation 7,450 ft., is approximately ten air miles southwest of South Lake Tahoe, on the upper western slopes of the Sierra Nevada. The station is located near the Sierra Nevada crestline in an area where the well-defined ridge has a northwest-southeast orientation. Situated on a north-facing slope, the site is a choice area for maximum snowfall production.

24-hour snowfall of 67 inches set a new California record in January 1982.

Weather maps of this event indicated a strong zonal flow with very moist air moving west to east across the Eastern Pacific. This juicy fetch of moisture from the southwest collided with colder air flowing down the eastern side of a high-pressure system centered over the Gulf of Alaska. At Echo Summit, 67 inches of snow (5.6 feet) fell in just 24 hours, which ranks it as the second greatest single day snowfall total in the United States. The North American and world records are held by Silver Lake, Colorado, which received 76 inches (6.3 ft.) in 24 hours on April 14-15, 1921.

Overnight snowfall in the “banana belt” neighborhood of Gateway west of downtown Truckee.

The Jan. 4-5 storm that dumped up to five feet of snow in the mountains was only one in a series of powerful snowstorms that had been hammering the Sierra Nevada over the New Year’s Holidays. The Central Sierra snowpack exceeded 11 feet in depth, and nearly a dozen avalanches had roared through the Donner Summit. Thousands of motorists were stranded when highway crews shut down Interstate 80. The two-day total of 80 inches (Jan. 3-5) recorded at Echo Summit during this 1982 event ranks third in California.

The Tahoe snowpack was huge by mid-April 1982. My brother Tom came out for a visit in March and ended up staying an extra week because we couldn’t get to Reno for a departure flight.

Interestingly, just three months after the Jan. 1982 event, on March 30-31, a 65-inch snowfall was recorded in 24 hours at Twin Lakes, California, only eight miles south of Echo Summit. The two-day total from March 30 to April 1, 1982, at Twin Lakes was 90 inches, the second greatest 48-hour snowfall total in U.S. history.

On January 11-12, 1997, Montague, New York, located just east of Lake Ontario, reported a new record of 77 inches in 24 hours. The measurement was disallowed, however, after the National Climate Extremes Committee determined that the total was achieved by adding six measurements together, two more than the maximum allowed during any 24-hour period.

 

 Town of Truckee during the big storm that caused the Alpine Meadows avalanche.

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Categories
Central Sierra Climate Change Weather History

#229 CAMP CENTURY PART 2

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. 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:

http//donnersummithistoricalsociety.org/PDFs/newsletters/news08&09/june09addendum.pdf

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Categories
Central Sierra Climate Change Weather History

#228: CAMP CENTURY PART 1


CAMP CENTURY: CITY UNDER ICE (PART 1 OF 2)

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.

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