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Birds of a Feather
by Tom Thomson

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The Conception:

Part I

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As inconceivable as it is to believe today, plans were underway from 1958 to 1961 to blast a man-made harbor out of the Alaskan coastline using thermonuclear bombs. But that is exactly what was afoot and it almost came to pass.

The U. S. Atomic Energy Commission gave birth to the idea, part of a "Plowshare" project- designed to explore peacetime uses of atomic devices and probably, in part, to intimidate the Soviet Union-.and touted the enterprise as a means of creating a commercial harbor at 1/50th the cost of using conventional methods. The AEC was spurred on by nuclear scientist Edward Teller, the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, and the project was touted by numerous advocates of Alaskan economic growth.

Original plans called for a full-scale harbor to be produced by detonations totaling 2.4 megatons. These projections were later scaled down to a single 200-kiloton bomb to excavate the turning basin, and four 20-kiloton bombs to create an entrance channel.

The locality chosen for the project-far up the coast of northwest Alaska-was at Ogotoruk Creek near Cape Thompson, thirty-two miles south of Point Hope, a Inupiat village of approximately 300 persons.

Cape Thompson, literally in the shadow of the projected nuclear blasts, was a traditional caribou hunting ground of the Eskimos at Point Hope. It was also the site of egg collecting expeditions to nearby cliffs where hordes of maritime birds nested, and the harvest of marine animals on the sea ice south of Point Hope.

Dan O'Neill documents the initial phases, the maturation, and the final demise of Project Chariot in his eye-opening book, The Firecracker Boys, published by St. Martin's Press in 1995.

Dr. John N. Wolfe, a one-time member of The Ohio State University faculty in the botany department was chosen by the AEC to head up an environmental impact study before any final decision to detonate the bombs.

When Wolfe was an undergraduate at OSU, according to a friend, if he didn't especially care for a course, he just didn't bother going to class. One of his classmates in a political science course was heard to say in later years that she didn't remember what he looked like back then-he didn't come to class often enough.

That was before he took a course in botany. In the words of Edward S. Thomas, "that's when he caught fire and he's been a ball of fire ever since."

He pursued his botany and other scientific classes with the fervor of a true believer and within a few years had obtained his Ph.D. He became a staff member of the Botany Department, then taught Plant Ecology, the prestigious course of study introduced by the famous botanist, Edgar Nelson Transeau. Several football players who took the course complained that the field trips were as vigorous as their spring training on the playing field, but in Thomas' words, "No one ever complained that the course was dull."

In 1945, Wolfe wrote a paper that was published in the Ohio Journal of Science in which he mentioned that weather statistics gathered six-stories up on a downtown office building had little relationship to the climatic conditions a spring beauty encountered in its niche in the leaf-mold on a rural hillside.

His views on meteorological disparity were proved in a five-year study done in the Clear Creek Valley at Neotoma, in Hocking County. In this work, he was assisted by two other members of the OSU Botany Department, Dick Wareham and Temp Scofield.

Hundreds of trips were made to check out data gathered at numerous recording stations at various elevations and in a variety of ecological niches in the valley. The Ohio Biological Survey published their results in 1949 in a 267-page paper titled Microclimates and Macroclimates of Neotoma, a small Valley in Central Ohio.

Among many interesting pieces of information in the paper was the surprising fact that during the five years of the study, they had recorded higher temperatures (118 degrees F.) and lower temperatures (25 degrees below zero) than had been recorded in 50 years by the weather bureau in nearby Lancaster.

It wasn't long after the publication of this important work that Wolfe was called to Washington D. C. and offered a position with the Atomic Energy Commission. His new job description was chief of the Environmental Sciences Branch of the Division of Biology and Medicine.


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