Recent missile threats to the United States have the U.S. military looking up to its northernmost installation: Thule Air Base. The U.S. Air Force monitors the skies for missiles from this Arctic location strategically positioned at the halfway point between Washington, D.C., and Moscow – and, because of the natural challenges posed by Greenland, the USAF must also closely monitor the readiness of this post.
“Thule’s unique location makes it a key asset to the United States; however, its unique environment makes it a difficult asset to maintain,” said Dan Rodriguez, acting deputy base civil engineer at Peterson Air Force Base.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New York District, has a major base consolidation underway with the intention of saving energy and taxpayer money and, most importantly, improving U.S. Air Force readiness.
Thule, pronounced “Two Lee,” is Latin for the northernmost part of the inhabitable world. Thule Air Base is located in the northwestern corner of Greenland, in a coastal valley 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 950 miles south of the North Pole.
For over half a century, the base has been home to active-duty Air Force members who live and work in this remote and harsh environment in service of national security. Today, the base is home to 650 personnel: 200 are U.S. military; the rest are Danish and Greenlandic residents.
The Army Corps of Engineers, under extreme arctic weather conditions, has executed a longstanding mission to help the base fulfill its mission by constructing several dormitories, an aircraft runway, taxiways and aprons, a medical facility and more. Now the Corps is consolidating and modernizing the base.
In the early 1950s, the base was home to 10,000 U.S. military airmen with a core mission as an aircraft refueling stop.
During the Cold War era, the mission shifted to performing missile warning and space surveillance for the United States.
Many of the original buildings are still in use but have become severely weather-worn; energy and fuel are being wasted to heat them and reach the most far-flung structures.
These buildings are also a significant distance from the base’s central heating plant, meaning long pipes to transport heat to these old buildings must be maintained.
The U.S. Air Force, in line with the U.S. military’s multi-faceted quest to become a greener fighting machine, has been on a mission to save energy – so they decided to call on the Corps to consolidate the base.
“Much energy and money will be saved by not heating those archaic facilities,” said Stella Marco, project manager, New York District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The consolidation effort will reduce the size of the base by 40 percent.
The Corps is doing this by demolishing 31 old buildings and building new structures closer together in the central area of the base where essential services are located including the airfield and hangars, dining facility and hospital.
The main structures that are being constructed are dormitories for non-commissioned officers who are visiting or on temporary duty at Thule.
At the moment, the Corps is working on five dormitory projects, including flat-top and high-rise structures, and renovating 636 existing dorm rooms.
The Corps is constructing a base supply and civil engineering shop as well as a vehicle maintenance and pavements and grounds facility. Other possible projects include expanding the base’s air passenger terminal and air freight terminal.
These new and renovated buildings are going to get toasty with an upgraded heating system. The base’s heating plant is being upgraded with new, more energy-efficient exhaust gas heat recovery boilers and engines.
The new system will recover waste heat from the engines for production of steam to the steam distribution system that is being converted to a hot water system.
Raising a new roof on a sweltering summer day is hard enough; performing construction in an Arctic environment presents its own avalanche of challenges. Thankfully, the Corps is an expert on how to work around this after having tinkered and toiled around the base for over half a century.
“At such a remote and cold location, construction, maintenance and utility costs are very high,” said Markus Tyboroski, site support engineer at Thule Air Base.
“For example, it costs three times as much to build a new facility at Thule as compared to an average location in the United States, and annual fuel costs for power and heating are $12 million.”
“This consolidation will result in reduced base operation and maintenance costs and will provide energy savings,” said Rodriguez. “It’s estimated that there will be an energy reduction of 35 percent. Since 2009, when the consolidation was starting up, the base has saved almost $37 million in energy savings and in base operating costs.”
Ultimately, the consolidation effort is to benefit the airmen protecting our nation, shoring up Thule Air Base as it shoulders the critical mission of missile defense. “The consolidation will provide airmen improved support because they are receiving modernized facilities and the buildings will be closer together,” Rodriguez said. “It’s great to see the project funded and in the works.”
Construction in the Arctic can be hampered by severe weather and limited daylight, challenges overcome with the use of unique building materials and techniques as well as fast-paced construction.
Most of northern Greenland is covered with permafrost, or permanently frozen ground ranging from 6 to 1,600 feet in depth.
This requires structures to be built with a special elevated Arctic foundation
three feet off the ground with the use of spread footings that go down about 10 feet deep and concrete columns that come up and support the floor system above the ground. If buildings are not constructed with this clearance, the heat from indoors can melt the permafrost, making the ground unstable and causing buildings to sink.
Construction takes place during the summer and autumn months when the temperature is a “balmy” 40 degrees Fahrenheit. In the winter, temperatures can be as low as minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
Because of Thule’s proximity to the North Pole, the region has 24 hours of sunlight from May through August – another reason for the summer work months – and 24 hours of darkness from November through February.
During warmer months, it’s possible to break up the ice in shipping lanes, allowing cargo ships into port carrying fuel and building materials including prefabricated parts to speed up the pace of projects. Materials include concrete foundations, insulated steel and metal walls and roof panels.
When winter arrives, it’s time to move the Corps projects indoors. This work includes constructing mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection systems designed to withstand extreme, frigid sub-zero temperatures.