Deep within the Arctic Circle in Greenland sits one of the US’s most isolated, and potentially critical, air bases.
At more than 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Thule Air Base is located at the strategic halfway point between Moscow and New York City and was intended as a potential staging area against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
Today, the base typically is used for allied surveillance of the northern polar region and has a stripped-down presence of approximately 400 Danes, 50 Greenlanders, 3 Canadians, and 140 American military and support staff.
Thule’s remote location makes serving on the base an experience far different from nearly anything else in the US military. The Air Force orientation guide to Thule explains how outside of the base, there isn’t much of anything for miles — just an empty, icy wasteland surrounding one of the world’s northern-most inhabited locations.
“There is no ‘local town,'” the guide states. “The closest Inuit (native Eskimo) village, Qaanaaq, is located 65 miles away. There is no ‘off-base’ except for the bay, the ice cap and what appears to be thousands of miles of rocks and/or ice.”
Thule is also locked in by ice nine months out of the year. In the summer, a Canadian icebreaker ship clears the base’s port to allow for a rapid resupply of food, fuel, construction materials, and cargo — before the bay freezes again in mid-October.
For the few months of the year that Thule is not iced over, the surrounding tundra comes alive (perhaps improbably) with swarms of blood-sucking insects.
“The summer will also bring out swarms of mosquitoes,” the guide warns. “Locals refer to them as the ‘Greenlandic Air Force.'”
Due to limited space and the importance of knowing everyone’s location in a dangerous and disorienting Arctic environment, all personnel regardless of rank live in dorms at Thule. Luckily for soldiers serving in one of the most remote places in the world, E=each of the rooms is provided with internet service.
Thule is too distant to be the target of a conventional enemy attack, but it faces a profound everyday challenge: the weather. It is not uncommon for the base to be wracked by massive snow storms that delay operations and trap personnel to their dorms.
“Mother Nature has her own schedule of ‘three-day weekends’ for us,” the guide advises. It also provides a handy photographic reference to the different levels of storm severity:
“It’s definitely a unique base,” one airman formerly posted at Thule said on Reddit under the handle SilverHawk7. He explained that even the length of span of each day is different from just about anywhere else under the American flag:
The sun will set for the last time around the end of October and won’t rise above the south mountain again until the end of February. You’ll get maybe a month or so of sunrises and sunsets until the sun stops setting and you enter the light season, where the sun draws a circle in the sky. During the dark season, SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is a thing … They have UV lamps in most of the offices to try and offset this.
The Air Force is aware of the hardships inherent in serving at a base over 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle, and makes an extra effort to attend to the needs of the small number of personnel it sends.
“If you’re into gaming, the community center has a game room with several networked consoles to play on,” SilverHawk7 continues. “They bring in free pizza from the club and basically game until midnight.”
Not that there’s much else to do — additional entertainment opportunities on base include a bowling center, a fitness center, an activities center, and a consolidated club that has events ranging from Halloween parties to Viking events.
Again, there’s no town outside of the base for another 65 icy miles. Although there are still things to do beyond the wire: the welcome guide advertises a wide range of additional activities including the Thule marathon, local guided tours of the surrounding area, and a summer skeet shooting range.
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