Chariot, Cape Thompson

Chariot, Cape Thompson

by | May 20, 2023

Cape Thompson is a headland on the Chukchi Sea coast near the site of Project Chariot, about 41 miles (66 km) northwest of Kivalina and about 31 miles (50 km) southeast of Point Hope, Alaska. Chariot is located at the mouth of Ogotoruk Creek between Sigrikpak Ridge to the east and Saligvik Ridge, which is the topographic feature of Cape Thompson, to the west. The first known Europeans to sight this cape were Mikhail Vasiliev on Otkrytie and Gleb Shishmaryov on Blagonamierennie who in 1820 explored the coast of Alaska from Kotzebue Sound to Icy Cape for the Imperial Russian Navy. They named the headland Mys Rikord, after admiral Peter Ivanovich Rikord, who was Governor of Kamchatka at that time. In 1826, the cape was named by Captain Frederick W. Beechey for Sir John Deas Thomson, a Royal Navy Commissioner. Beechey misspelled the name ‘Thompson’ on his chart, which was subsequently copied by cartographers. Cape Thompson is the southern expression of the Lisburne Hills that extend north to Cape Lisburne and generally form the Lisburne Peninsula. The underlying bedrock at Chariot comprise marine sedimentary rocks that are successively younger from west to east. Limestone and dolomite beds that developed during the Mississippian age predominate in the western part of the area and at Chariot. The bedrock is covered by a few inches to tens of feet of unconsolidated Quaternary sedimentary deposits, peat, and tundra.

The Iñupiaq at Point Hope historically called Cape Thompson ‘uivag garvitog’ which means ‘near cape’ and was an area where they hunted caribou and birds and gathered eggs each summer. In 1826, when Beechey visited, there were several Point Hope families camped near the cape. The area south of Cape Thompson was the site of a fierce battle between the Tikirarmiut people of Point Hope and the Nuataarmiut people of the upper Noatak River. In 1838, an expedition led by Aleksandr F. Kashevarov discovered human bones strewn among the steep slopes and several graves in shallow holes. The bodies in the graves were those of Tikirarmiut people of Point Hope who had been placed there by their compatriots after the fight. The bones lying around belonged to the encroaching Nuataarmiut people but had already been scavenged by foxes and birds. In 1924, when Knud Rasmussen traversed the Canada and Alaska Arctic coast on the Fifth Thule Expedition, he visited Charles Brower in Utqiaġvik who talked about the battle. According to Rasmussen, the Iñupiat who lived between Norton Sound and the Arctic Ocean were known for their warlike nature. The different tribes were constantly feuding among themselves and were often hostile to people who encroached on their territory. Fighters were mostly armed with bows and arrows, and had breastplates armored with walrus bone or tusks, and carried great saw-toothed clubs designed to crush the skull of an enemy.

Chariot was named after Project Chariot, a U.S. Atomic Energy Commission proposal in 1958 to construct an artificial harbor at the mouth of Ogotoruk Creek by burying and detonating a series of nuclear devices as part of Project Plowshare. Plowshare was the overall United States program for the development of techniques to use nuclear explosives for peaceful construction purposes such as rock blasting, stimulation of tight gas, chemical element manufacture, and probing the composition of the Earth’s deep crust. There were many Plowshare projects proposed in Alaska, mostly for harbor construction and navigational channels. The plan was championed by Edward Teller, who traveled throughout the state touting the harbor as an important economic development. Alaskan political leaders, newspaper editors, the state university’s president, even church groups all rallied in support of the massive detonation. Opposition came from the village of Point Hope and a few scientists. Although the detonation never occurred, the site was radioactively contaminated by an experiment to estimate the effect of radioactive debris on water sources. Radioactive material from a nuclear explosion at the Nevada Test Site was transported to the Chariot site in August 1962, then used in several experiments and buried. Residents did not learn of these experiments until research documents were declassified in the 1990s. Read more here and here. Explore more of Chariot and Cape Thompson here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2022 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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