It was a dark and stormy night. . .

  • Published
  • By Mr. Phillip Eddy
  • Weather Station Operations
Oh, no - a really boring horror story

Imagine that night is 2,880 hours long! And imagine the "stormy" part of it is a full-bore blizzard for 168 hours with peak winds of 207 mph and average visibility of 6 to 12 inches. Thule Air Base in Northern Greenland is located at 76 N, 68 W on the globe and that dark and stormy night earned its listing in the Guinness Book of World Records for "The fastest surface wind speed at a low altitude" on March 8, 1972. The actual wind speed is unknown as the anemometer was broken and blown off at the 207 mark; it is estimated that if the equipment survived the storm, the true amount would have been higher. 

"Dark and Stormy Nights" are ordeals Thuleites have learned to deal with, on a regular and safe basis. Thule forecasters classify their storms, or blizzards, a little differently than most locations and it's a system that's been refined over 50 years. For Thule, a Winter Storm is one of 3 levels with the main one being winds greater than 35 knots and visibility less than one-half mile, usually in blowing snow. Thule is divided into two main working areas: On-base - the airfield, housing and infrastructure, and Off-base which consists of the 12th Space Warning Squadron, Ballistic Missile Early Warning System and the Thule Tracking Station, home of Det. 3 of the 22nd Space Operations Squadron. In an average year, Thule will experience 12 to 15 Storms on- and off-base with an average duration of 18-30 hours. Many will have peak winds of more than 100 mph.
Of course, it isn't always "Dark and Stormy" at Thule. After a long, cold winter, with February average high temperatures around -25 F, the spring thaw in May feels like tropical weather to Thuleites. Thule has 24-hour sunlight from April 20 to Aug. 18 and it's common to see locals walking around base in shorts, sandals, and t-shirts - even when the outside temperatures are barely above freezing. 

During the high summer period, which occurs from late June through late August, temperatures will soar to 45 to 50 F. A Thule heat wave! During this period most people will take treks around the region to see some spectacular scenery including glaciers, icebergs, ice-caves and waterfalls. Thule hosts several annual events including a Polar Bear Swim that usually lasts around 15 seconds because the water temperature is around 30 F; a golf tournament atop nearby Mt. Dundas consisting of 9 holes, 1 club, 3 balls and a patch of Astroturf; and July 4 celebrations with no fireworks because it's still light at midnight. Additional Thule Tripping activities include picnics, bike rides, and camping during high summer. 

With a permanent base population of around 600, including U.S. Air Force; Canadian Air Force; Danish Navy; and U.S., Danish and Greenlandic civilians, it's a very enriching experience, indoors or out. Everything one needs is available on-base because there is no nearby town - the closest village is 65 miles north. There is a base gym, a bowling alley, recreation center, library, skills development center, an all-ranks club, and a dining facility. There's also a large AAFES Shopette and an APO and Greenlandic Post Office. The people who live and work at Thule are a special group - crime is extremely rare, and the old-time-small-town feeling is pervasive and comforting, they're all in it together making Team Thule one of the Air Force's best-kept secrets. 

The people living at Thule learned long-ago how to cope with the storms. During storms, a person might not be allowed outside for up to three to four days. Every building that could be occupied during a storm is stocked with a supply of Meals Ready to Eat. Most residents learn quickly to stock up on items from the BX that will make the locked-down time more comfortable - favorite soft drinks, snacks, T.V. dinners, bread, etc. and to keep these items rotated on a monthly basis. Along the 12-mile-long road to BMEWS, there are storm shelters approximately every mile, with bunk beds, a heater, and MREs.
Making forecasting and weather observation extremely important, Thule can experience a "Winter Storm" any time with snow recorded every month of the year. Storms can occur very rapidly, and occasionally with little warning due to sparse data coverage and limited satellite coverage.