Thule on My Mind: Deep Water Port and Air Force Base

I am an air force brat. My father and my father-in-law enlisted in the German and US Air Forces, respectively. They served during the Cold War when I was born in 1961 a few month after the Berlin Wall went up. My father-in-law was stationed in Thule, Greenland, a northern forward base with radars to detect ballistic missiles, fighter jets to intercept planes, and bombers to retaliate in nuclear war. About 60 years later, the fighter jets, bombers, and communist threat are all gone, but the base is still there, and to me it is the gateway to North Greenland. Both US and Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers call its port to receive or discharge crews and scientists such as myself in 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009, and 2012.

An F-102 jet of the 332d Fighter-Interceptor Squadron at Thule AFB in 1960. [Credit: United States Air Force]

An F-102 jet of the 332d Fighter-Interceptor Squadron at Thule AFB in 1960. [Credit: United States Air Force.]

Today about 58,000 people live on Greenland spread over an area three times the size of Texas. On July 9, 1951 about 12,000 men arrived by ships to build the base. The 1953 film “Operation Blue Jay” documents the context, people, scenery, logistics, and construction that made today’s Thule Air Force Base (AFB).

The place should really be called by its native name Pituffik, but in 1953 about 130 Greenlanders living nearby were forcibly moved about 100 km to the north to what is now the town Qaanaaq, population 600. Lots of stories here, but I want to focus on the port of Thule:

Thule AFB with its airport, pier, and ice-covered ocean in the summer. The island is Saunders Island. The ship is most likely the CCGS Henry Larsen in 2007. [Credit: Unknown]

Thule AFB with its airport, pier, and ice-covered ocean in the summer. The island is Saunders Island. The ship is most likely the CCGS Henry Larsen in 2007. [Credit: Unknown]

CCGS Henry Larsen in North Star Bay on Aug.-2, 2012 at the pier at Thule. Dundas Mountain is visible as is the Greenland Ice Sheet in the background to the south-east. [Credit: Andreas Muenchow]

CCGS Henry Larsen in North Star Bay on Aug.-2, 2012 at the pier at Thule. Dundas Mountain is visible as is the Greenland Ice Sheet in the background to the south-east. [Credit: Andreas Muenchow]

Dr. Helen Johnson in August 2009 on the pier of Thule AFB with CCGS Henry Larsen and Dundas Mountain in the background. [Credit: Andreas Muenchow]

Dr. Helen Johnson in August 2009 on the pier of Thule AFB with CCGS Henry Larsen and Dundas Mountain in the background. [Credit: Andreas Muenchow]

Pier at Thule in Aug.-2012 with the Air Force Base and the Greenland Ice Sheet in the background. [Credit: Andreas Muenchow]

Pier at Thule in Aug.-2012 with the Air Force Base and the Greenland Ice Sheet in the background. [Credit: Andreas Muenchow]

The Port of Thule is the northernmost deep-water port in the world. It was meant as temporary structure in 1951 when it was built within less than 3 weeks around 4 barges each 76 meters long and 15 meters wide. These barges contained self-raising jacks to lift themselves up out of the water. Each barge was then supported with 12 concrete filled cylinders with steel-jackets to protect them from moving ice. In 2006 the so-called DeLong pier was repaired as some of the underwater support columns had developed cracks as the steel used in 1951 did not conform to modern engineering standards.

Thule Pier showing support cylinders during its 2006 repair [Credit: Appledorn Marine Engineering Inc., Portsmouth, NH]

Thule Pier showing support cylinders during its 2006 repair [Credit: Appledorn Marine Engineering Inc., Portsmouth, NH]

I learnt all of this last week writing yet another proposal. A group of electrical and system engineers, computer scientists and oceanographers submitted a high-risk proposal to the National Science Foundation. Together we plan to build the prototype of an underwater communication network. I think of it as a cell-phone tower system under water. The goal is to get ocean data transmitted under water over long distances for a long time. This has never been done in the Arctic, but we would like to connect such a network to pier of Thule AFB so that our ocean data can be relayed back via satellites and internet connections. That’s the idea and that’s why Thule is on my mind …

Arctic sea ice near Thule, Greenland during transition from land-fast (Mar.-4, 2013) to mobile (May-22, 2013) ice along with tentative sensor array (red) and 2003 track of bottom survey (blue). Contours are 50, 100, 150, and 200-m bottom depth. Dark areas are open water, white areas are snow or ice, land topography is naturally illuminated by a low sun-angle on Mar.-4. [Data from MODIS Terra.]

Arctic sea ice near Thule, Greenland during transition from land-fast (Mar.-4, 2013) to mobile (May-22, 2013) ice along with tentative sensor array (red) and 2003 track of bottom survey (blue). Contours are 50, 100, 150, and 200-m bottom depth. Dark areas are open water, white areas are snow or ice, land topography is naturally illuminated by a low sun-angle on Mar.-4. [Data from MODIS Terra.]

Elwood, N.J. and J.W. Gaithwaite (2007). Perpetuating a Pier, Civil Engineering, 77 (5), 62-67.

8 responses to “Thule on My Mind: Deep Water Port and Air Force Base

  1. Good luck with your proposal! How would the system be installed?

    • And luck one always needs in these things: For the at-sea elements deployment would take place via holes drilled through the ice. The connection of the underwater receive array at the pier in Thule to the surface is more tricky. It will require detailed consultations with the military, their contractors, and probably the Engineering company that did the repairs in 2006. The focus of our proposed work is the wireless underwater communication network and its exploitation in a climate science setting. This alone challenges the cutting edge of several engineering and science disciplines. As with most innovative science or engineering projects, creative team-work is key.

  2. Great article. I didn’t know about the self-raising barges. From above, it appears there are questions on how to connect to the pier. I’m not an engineer, but there was an undersea cable that started at Thule. They figured out how to get the cable out through the ice. Maybe it’s in the other construction records. One thing’s for sure at Thule. The skill of “We’ll figure it out” is alive and well. I was the base commander 2007-2008. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help. My FB page has a few more Thule/western Greenland pictures. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Lee-Volker-Cox/669855853044470
    Top of the World to You!

    • Thank you so much for the comment and the offer to help that we sure will need. Only last friday the National Science Foundation approved this high-risk project to go forward. Funny thing that I received this message while visiting my son on Anacortes Island where he lives while serving as a naval aviator and a day before visiting a close Canadian collaborator via a 2 hour ferry ride to Sidney, British Columbia.

      The test-of-concept of the under-water and under-ice communication system would not take place until the spring of 2016, if all goes well, but I am already in touch with Danish oceanographers who work in the area out of Qaanaq using a creative combination of old and new technologies. It is always wise to built on experiences of those who have been there before and know local conditions and people.

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  4. Thorbjørn Jørgensen

    Hi Andreas, Wondering how your project is coming along? Are you comming to Thule in 2016? Effective long distance communication from Thule would really be beneficial and probably also a lot of other places here in the artic isolated environment, as an alternative to satellites. I have been working as engineer on Thule for the last decade. I always curios and happy to help out when “experimental” projects takes place up here. So Please let me know if I can be of any help. Also as you may know NSF operates a flattop (Bldg #353) housing science personnel and sometimes have a local coordinator up here. I wish you all the best for the project.

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