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When the Space Age Met An Ancient Arctic Crossroads

THE United States chose the location of its northernmost military outpost with no particular imagination. Thule, history proved, was the obvious place.

From the second millennium BC, this area served as a bridge for the eastward expansion of Eskimos in much the same way the Bering Strait did for the expansion of ancient civilizations, according to archaeologists. The region sits at the confluence of three major waters - the straits of northeastern Canada, the Arctic Ocean, and the northernmost reaches of the Gulf Stream - and supports a rich food chain starting with marine plankton and ending with polar bears. It provided Eskimos with unlimited hunting and spawned their seafaring culture.

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``From the far west of Alaska to the east and southwest of Greenland, the lines of cultural ebb and flow crossed at Thule,'' writes Jean Malaurie in his 1985 book, ``The Last Kings of Thule'' (University of Chicago Press).

In the 19th century, explorers wintered here. North Star Bay, the small inlet of the village, took its name from the first Scottish whaling ship to spend a winter here in 1850. Early in this century, Danish explorer-governor Knud Rasmussen and his cartographer, Peter Freuchen, established their base of operations here. Their house still stands.

After World War II, the US needed an Arctic station for monitoring its new world rival, the Soviet Union. In a covert operation called Project Nanook, Army pilots flew out of Alaska and northern Greenland to photograph and map the region. The Russians engaged in similar reconnaissance.

Maj. Manuel Menendez led the operation in Thule, flying B-17s across the frozen north in the summer of 1947. The work was dangerous: His crew would lose contact with the base 100 miles out and fly by celestial navigation.

``Every time we took off we were sticking our necks out,'' he said in a telephone interview. Only years later did he learn the purpose of his work. ``The Army had people at the base checking our photographs, all to build bases in the Arctic region because of the Soviets.''

In 1951, under agreement with Denmark - Greenland's trustee - the US military landed in Thule. In three months of round-the-clock work, the Americans built a strategic cold-war base that cost, according to some estimates, as much as $8 million. At its height, it employed 10,000. An ancient crossroads had been overrun by the Space Age - missile-warning systems, satellite-tracking instruments, and NASA-launch facilities for missles.

Now, with the cold war over, the international scientific community hopes to make use of the base for research on global warming.

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