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.