Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Thule, Greenland

Thule as Tile on the Carta Marina of 1539

In ancient times Thule referred to an unchartered land alleged to be six days travel north of England. The name is commonly credited to Greek geographer Pytheas who between 330 and 320 BC was the first known scientist to sail to the arctic and report perennial polar ice and the midnight sun. While his route remains mysterious and a topic of debate, Pytheas nevertheless introduced the idea of distant Thule to the geographic imagination. Thereafter medieval geographers denoted any faraway place beyond the "borders of the known world" as ultima Thule.


A Sod Eskimo Igloo, Umanaq

Originally known as Umanaq to the Inuit, Thule is located 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle adjacent to Wolstenholme Fjord and North Star Bay and has long been utilized by aboriginal peoples. Excavations at Comer’s Midden revealed 900-year old artifacts attributed to the Dorset Culture who were later displaced by North American Inuit or Eskimos. Sometimes referred to as the Thule people, these Inuit inhabited Umanaq until the early 1950s when the United States established a nearby military base. The 130 Inuit then relocated 70 miles north to Qaanaaq. To this day, annual Inuit hunting parties continue to return to Umanaq.

Inuit Child
Heritage Hall, Thule Air Base

In 2003 the Danish Supreme Court ruled the relocation was considered an “expropriative intervention” and the Danish government acknowledged the movement was a serious interference and an unlawful act against the indigenous population.

Arctic Explorers

While searching for the Northwest Passage in 1818, Sir John Ross’s expedition made the first European contact with the nomadic Thule people. Later that century, to support expeditions to the North Pole, Robert Peary built a station at the foot of Mount Dundas that attracted a permanent population. Soon after in 1910, anthropologist and explorer Knud Rasmussen established a missionary and trading post and called the site “Thule” after Pytheas’s fabled northern land. Today the site is commonly known as Dundas Village.

"Journals of Knud"

From Dundas Village, Rasmussen launched a series of seven Thule Expeditions into the Arctic to document Inuit culture and map the region. The son of a Danish missionary and Inuit-Danish mother, Rasmussen was born in Ilulissat, Greenland where he spent his childhood learning to hunt, drive dog sleds, live in harsh Arctic conditions, and speak the native language. Among many notable accomplishments, Rasmussen traveled for 16 months with two Inuit hunters by dog sled across North America to Nome, Alaska. Rasmussen was awarded an Honorary Fellowship from the American Geographical Society in 1912 and an honorary doctorate from the University of Copenhagen in 1924.

"My playmates were native Greenlanders; from the earliest boyhood I played and worked with the hunters, so even the hardships of the most strenuous sledge-trips became pleasant routine for me." - Knud Rasmussen

Thule Air Base

After the German occupation of Denmark in 1940, the Danish Ambassador to the United States, made an agreement "In the name of the king" authorizing the United States to defend the Danish colonies in Greenland from Nazi invaders. Denounced by the Danish government, the treaty allowed the United States to operate military bases in Greenland "for as long as there is agreement" that a threat to North America existed.
Beginning in the summer of 1941, the U.S. Coast Guard and the War Department established weather and radio stations in Greenland including one in Dundas Village that was staffed by Danish personnel.

When Denmark joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949 it abandoned its attempts to remove U.S. bases in Greenland. Soon after, the U.S. Air Force Strategic Air Command embarked on a global program of base building in which Thule would be the crown jewel.

Nuclear Blast

Due to its location across the Pole from the U.S.S.R., as well as its merit of being the northernmost port to be reliably resupplied by ship, Thule became a key point in American nuclear retaliation strategy. Nuclear-armed aircraft including B-52 bombers flying over the Arctic presented less risk of early warning than using bases in the United Kingdom. Defensively, Thule could serve as a base for intercepting bomber attacks along the northeastern approaches to Canada and the United States.

"How Thule Won The Cold War"
Heritage Hall, Thule Air Base

In replacement of the agreement entered into during World War II between the US and Denmark, a new agreement with respect to Greenland was ratified in 1951. The pact specified that the two nations would arrange for the use of facilities in Greenland by NATO forces in defense of a region known as the Greenland Defense Area.

Construction started in secret in 1951 under the code name Operation Blue Jay. The project was made public in 1952 and after enormous effort was completed in 1953. During this era Thule Air Base was populated by over 12,000 military personnel. 

Telephone, Thule Air Base 

In the winter of 1968 a B-52 bomber crash-landed in nearby North Star Bay. This "Broken Arrow" condition set into motion a herculean effort known as “Operation Crested Ice” to recover its payload of four hydrogen bombs, or what was left of them. It’s not publicly known how much weapons-grade plutonium was involved; giving rise to much speculation.

Although radioactive debris remains on the seafloor, surveys by Danish nuclear scientists that reveal elevated levels plutonium in the area conclude “…plutonium in the marine environment at Thule presents an insignificant risk to man.” However, cancer rates among cleanup workers reportedly increased.

Despite the end of the Cold War, Thule remains primarily a military base and hosts the 12th Space Warning Squadron, a Ballistic Missile Early Warning Site, Detachment 1 of the 23d Space Operations Squadron, and various other modern weapons systems. As of 2010, a mix of approximately 600 U.S. military personnel and Danish contractors reside at Thule. In addition to year-round weekly jet service, every summer the sea ice thins sufficiently for the U.S. to deploy one heavy supply ship to Thule Air Base in what is called "Operation Pacer Goose."

Camp Century

During the Cold War a top-secret U.S. Army program called "Project Iceworm" aimed to build a network of mobile nuclear missile launch sites under the Greenland Ice Sheet. In preparation the Army Corps of Engineers constructed Camp Century. This nuclear-powered sub-surface research center was located 150 miles east of Thule on the Greenland Ice Sheet.

Construction of Camp Century commenced in June 1959 and was completed in October 1960.  The project cost $7,920,000, which included the $5,700,000 cost of the portable nuclear power plant. Camp Century was occupied until 1966 under the auspices of the Army Polar Research and Development Center.

Camp Century in 1969

While designed to last over 10 years, unanticipated movement of the glacial ice required time-consuming and laborious trimming and removal of more than 120 tons of snow and ice each month. In 1963 after operating for 33 months the nuclear reactor was deactivated and removed. The following year Camp Century became a seasonal summer camp and in 1966 was abandoned completely. In the proceeding years the constant movement of the Greenland icecap crushed all the remaining sub-surface tunnels.

"Heavy Swing"
photo by Ray Hansen

The bulk of fuel and supplies (including the nuclear reactor) for the construction and resupply of Camp Century were hauled overland by tractor for 150-miles from Thule Air Base. This route included traveling 140 miles across the Greenland Ice Sheet.

Greenland Inland Traverse

More recently, in an effort to resupply the National Science Foundation’s Summit Research Station located on the Greenland Ice Sheet 733 overland miles from Thule, a similar tractor traverse occurs every one or two years. Known as the Greenland Inland Traverse or GrIT, the project involves the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs, the Army Corps of Engineers' Cold Regions Research & Engineering Laboratory and Polar Field Services.

The author and a Tucker Sno-Cat rigged with a Ground Penetrating Radar.

For the first seventy miles GrIT follows a similar route to that used to establish Camp Century before diverging southward to Summit Station. In the last half century, however, the ice sheet has receded and thinned creating treacherous crevassed sections and a serious safety hazard. In order to reduce the risk of a tractor inevitably falling into a crevasse, the Strategic Crevasse Avoidance Team (SCAT) composed of mountain guides, engineers, and a mechanic spend a month surveying the first 70 miles of the route with Ground Penetrating Radar.

Arctic Wilderness

Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus)

Greenland's Thule (76.7° North), like Antarctica's Ross Island (76.5° South), provides the ideal base for polar exploration due to its proximity to the highest latitude sea-based resupply vessels can navigate. And like McMurdo Station on Ross Island, military air and sea operations have left an unaesthetic industrial legacy out of character with the surrounding polar wilderness.

Fortunately, one does not need to travel far from either base to experience primordial landscapes of ice and fauna. A few miles north of Thule is Wolstenholme Fjord where four large glaciers flowing of the Greenland Ice Sheet create numerous ice bergs and a refuge for polar bears.

Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) Tracks, Wolstenholme Fjord

Wildlife known to inhabit Thule and North Star Bay includes: polar bear (Ursus maritimus), muskox (Ovibos moschatus), reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), Arctic fox (Vulpes lagopus), Arctic hare (Lepus arcticus), and a variety of whales, seals, and birds.

The Arctic trails have their secret tales that would make your blood run cold.” 


  1. Really interesting, and depressing. Once again, doing our best to pollute every last remote place on earth.

  2. my colleague from work here in Nuuk who had been there last year as a trainee in foodservice always tell a story of thule air base so we now nicknamed him Thulemand... i hope all is keeping warm up there.