Camp Lonely, Pitt Point

Camp Lonely, Pitt Point

by | May 26, 2022

Lonely was originally a Cold War Distant Early Warning facility until it was dismantled in 2018 and is now an unattended airstrip situated on the coast of the Beaufort Sea at Pitt Point between Drew Point on Smith Bay to the west and Cape Halkett on Harrison Bay to the east, about 83 miles (134 km) east-southeast of Utqiaġvik and 72 miles (116 km) northwest of Nuiqsut, Alaska. The official designation of the Pitt Point DEW Line station was POW-1, but the unofficial name used by the people stationed there was ‘Lonely’, and later became known as Camp Lonely. Pitt Point was named in 1837 by Peter W. Dease after Thomas Pitt who was a board member of the Hudson’s Bay Company. This area is part of the Arctic Coastal Plain which consists of low, flat, boggy tundra underlain by solid permafrost. In the summer, thawing permafrost develops thermokarst lakes which are shallow depressions filled with freshwater. The underlying bedrock of the coastal plain is part of Sagavanirktok Formation formed during the Tertiary period that has a maximum thickness of 525 feet (160 m). This formation consists of siltstone, shale, and sandstone with local ash beds. The only known outcrops of these rocks occur at the big bend on the lower Colville River near Nuiqsut. Portions of the Beaufort Sea coast have experienced a dramatic increase in erosion since the early part of this century. This phenomenon is best documented along the north-facing segment of the coastline located between Drew Point and Cape Halkett, where mean annual erosion rates have been as high as 45 feet (13.6 m) per year between 2002 and 2007, and 56 feet (17.1 m) per year between 2007 and 2009. The erosion rate along this portion of the coast is higher than in neighboring areas on account of the high ice content of the sea bluffs, the fineness of the sediment grains found in the bluffs, and the absence of barrier islands. Acceleration of the erosion rate in this area of continuous permafrost is likely associated with the warming of the Beaufort Sea, the warming of the atmosphere, and the increase in the spatial and temporal extent of open water conditions.

Iñupiat people of Utqiaġvik and Nuiqsut rely heavily on subsistence hunting and fishing. Depending on their location, they harvest walruses, seals, whales, polar bears, caribou, and fish. Depending on their location, they harvest walruses, seals, whales, polar bears, caribou, and fish. Along with other Inuit groups, the Iñupiat originate from the Thule people who migrated from islands in the Bering Sea around 300 BC. Their traditional territory includes lands north from Norton Sound on the Bering Sea to the Arctic Coastal Plain and east to the Mackenzie River. Historically there were many small settlements along the coast that were used by family groups as seasonal whaling and fishing camps. The historic settlement of Kolovik was situated on slightly raised ground about 330 feet (100 m) from the coast approximately 4 miles (6 km) west of Lonely. The known cultural features of this former whaling, trapping, and trading location consisted of standing houses, two whaleboats, and at least four surface burials. Another seasonal camp known as Kokruagarok was located about 4 miles (6 km) east of Lonely. In 1837, Dease and Thomas Simpson were the first Europeans to explore this part of the Beaufort Sea coast. They had sailed down the Mackenzie River in Canada and then west­ward past the Colville River Delta and reached a point a little beyond Cape Simp­son, where they landed and pro­ceeded west on foot to reach Point Barrow. Additional knowledge of the coast was gained from the various expeditions sent out between 1848 and 1853 to search for the missing party of Sir John Franklin. In 1849, Lieutenant William Pullen sailed in a small boat from Kotzebue Sound all the way around the Arctic coast to the Mackenzie River. Starting in the early 1900s, the U.S. Geological Survey sponsored many parties for exploration and geologic investigation of the Arctic coast, including William J. Peters and Frank C. Schraeder in 1901, and Ernest K. Leffingwell and Rudolph M. Anderson in 1906-1914. Fur­ther valuable contributions were made by Vilhjalmur Stefansson be­tween 1908 and 1918. With the establishment of the Naval Petroleum Reserve by President Warren Harding in 1923, another series of investigations by the U.S. Geological Survey was begun at the request of the Navy Department. By the late 1940s, information from the field surveys provided a reasonably adequate, but still generalized, pic­ture of the major geologic features of the reserve and the surrounding areas. Since the 1970s, oil and other mineral resources have become an important revenue source for the Iñupiat villages of the Arctic Coastal Plain and in many ways have introduced challenges to their culture and lifestyle.

In 1953, the U.S. Department of the Interior granted 1,800 acres of public land at Pitt Point to the U.S. Air Force for Distant Early Warning station POW-1. Lonely was originally constructed in 1953 and operated until 1989. In 1993, the installation was converted to a Short Range Radar Station that operated as part of the North Warning System with a minimally attended surveillance radar. In 1998, Pacific Air Forces initiated ‘Operation Clean Sweep’, in which abandoned Cold War stations in Alaska were remediated and the land restored to its previous condition. The site remediation of the radar and support station at Lonely was carried out by the 611th Civil Engineering Squadron from Elmendorf Air Force Base, and remediation work was completed by 2005. However, an unauthorized dumpsite located near the western edge of a saltwater lagoon received waste from the Lonely station between 1955 and 1976. Coastal erosion accelerated by the loss of sea ice exposed the dump to ocean waves. In 2003, the ocean side of the facility lost over 150 feet (46 m) of shoreline causing an abandoned pump house to collapse on the beach. In 2007, the Short Range Radar Station was closed due to coastal erosion and increasing maintenance costs. In 2008 and 2009, cleanup activities at the dumpsite consisted of the excavation of buried material and contaminated oil and subsequent separation into waste streams that included contaminated soils, nonhazardous solid waste, and hazardous waste slated for offsite disposal.  The present facility has only a rough airstrip at an elevation of 17 feet (5 m) above mean sea level with a gravel surface measuring 5,000 feet (1500 m) by 100 feet (30 m). Between 2009 and 2018, about 900 feet (275 m) of the main road leading from the west end of the airstrip to the sea bluff eroded away, which represents an erosion rate of 100 feet (30 m) per year. Read more here and here. Explore more of Lonely and Pitt Point here:

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About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (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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