University of Nebraska students working to bring new life to Cold War silo relic


College of Architecture students and University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) researchers are working to bring new life to a Cold War relic here in Nebraska. A brainchild born from the UNL Grand Challenges research, collaboration initiative, the team endeavors to create a testing facility for ice core drilling equipment with educational outreach and exhibition space using an abandoned Atlas-F missile silo near Seward, Nebraska. Upon completion, the ICE (Ice Coring & Education) Silo Center will be the first facility of its kind in the world. College of Architecture Collaborate studio students explored concepts for the center as part of their fall semester project. These concepts will be used in future project development, planning and grant application efforts.

The genesis of this project began when several UNL researchers were discussing the need to fully test the ice core drilling equipment before being shipped to remote field stations in Greenland and Antarctica. Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Professor David Harwood, UNL Lead Driller Dennis Duling and ICE Silo Project Chief Engineer Jim McManis were exploring options for testing the equipment prior to travel since transporting costs about half a million dollars every time they make the trip, and equipment failure in the field has significant impacts on science outcomes. If they could test the equipment locally in Nebraska, potential risks could be significantly decreased.

Duling said to Harwood, “You know, there’s a big hole in the ground we could use near Seward,” and proposed the Cold War silos to Harwood as a potential site for development. Through Grand Challenges meet and greets, Harwood and his colleague Mindi Searls, a Research Assistant Professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, who are coordinating this project were introduced to Associate Professor of Architecture Brian Kelly. Kelly has been researching the silos for the past four years and taught several studios centered around repurposing the abandoned silos.

It was serendipitous that our areas of research overlapped,” said Kelly. “I was excited to help explore the possibilities of how they could repurpose the silo for testing, and what better learning opportunity for my students than to bring them into a collaborative, interdisciplinary design project with faculty from across the campus.”

So far, the collaborative team and the students have identified three focus areas for the spaces in the proposed 70,000 sq. ft. facility: ice drilling equipment fabrication and testing, exhibition and educational outreach.

Ice Core Drilling Focus

The ice core drilling equipment testing center with an adjacent workshop has the potential to save the university time and money by trouble shooting the equipment before the drilling team travels to remote locations.

“We don’t usually have an opportunity to test the equipment before shipping new tools into the field,” said Harwood. “There is so much effort in setting up remote field camps on top of ice sheets, often they are three years in development, traversing and shipping, so it is critically important that the tools doing the science are the best they can be, and that they work as needed to do the science.”

By having a local testing center and workshop Harwood explains, it would also increase their onsite efficiencies and drilling approaches.

“The onsite workshop would allow engineers and drillers to make adjustments and modifications to their drills and instruments after testing,” Harwood said. “It would enhance UNL’s ability to design, develop and test its own drills and instruments, building upon our past success in this field.”

Although the abandoned silo site is much shorter than the drilling depth used by scientists and researchers in the Antarctic and Greenland, the proposed 150 feet deep, by ten feet diameter ice column is all they need for testing, simulation and calibration.

“The entry into the ice and the point where they break through into the subglacial lake are the points that are crucial for the drill team to understand how the equipment will perform, and our proposed testing site will simulate those situations for them,” said Kelly.

Ideally, the testing center will also be a research destination for other universities who also need to test their drilling systems and run their drills. There are numerous national and international polar scientists and engineers from ice-drilling research institutions who are potential users for this center.

“I can see this facility filling an international research niche,” said Harwood. “There are always challenges working in remote polar regions, far from logistical support centers and resupply shops, but this new facility would help reduce those risks and ensure that ice drilling systems from UNL, or other national and international research centers, would be mission ready. This facility would be able to ‘custom-build’ columns of ice specific to what each project would expect in the field.”

Exhibition and Outreach Focus

Another focus of the center will be an exhibition area to showcase local history, the science of ice core drilling, issues around climate change, earth and atmospheric sciences etc.

A prime exhibition example would be the history of area missile silos. Although brief, a story unknown to many, the Lincoln Air Force Base played a significant role in our nation’s Cold War history controlling the launch sites for 12 missile silos near Eagle, Elmwood, Avoca, Nebraska City, Palmyra, Tecumseh, Beatrice, Cortland, Wilber, Seward, York and Brainard, Nebraska.  Construction for these silos started in 1959, was completed in about one year, and by 1965 all silo sites had been decommissioned.

Bringing elementary and high school teachers and students to facilities like this to learn about the silo’s Cold War history, the science of ice-core drilling, or the engineering challenges it took to build the silos and to repurpose them, would be a significant resource for Nebraska educators.

“The educational possibilities here are really endless,” said Kelly. “This project has amazing potential for adjacent communities.”

Project Timeline

Although many design projects for College of Architecture students are hypothetical, Kelly says the ICE Silo is a facility they hope to build with various partners.

“We currently have a planning grant through UNL’s Grand Challenges program, and at the beginning of next year, Harwood, Searls and Kelly will be submitting a mid-scale infrastructure grant to the National Science Foundation (NSF) to further advance the design phase of this project.”

This is a multi-phased, multi-year project at UNL, which Kelly said he can see the baton being passed to future studios for additional development with the UNL researchers.

Student Experience

“This is an exciting opportunity for my students because they are exposed to research and development for a project type that doesn’t currently exist,” said Kelly. “There are no other facilities like this in the world, so this is energizing for us to be on the ground floor of a project like this.”

Harwood, McManis and Searls served as consultants for the students as they created and developed their concepts offering advice and guidance during meetings and project critiques.

“It was great to see the projects develop, and we were very impressed with the creativity and dedicated effort of the students in Brian Kelly’s Design Studio,” said Harwood. “They rose to and met the challenges presented to them. It is clear that they had fun, and the quality of the four treatments indicated they learned a lot!”

Kelly’s fourth-year, Collaborate studio, is structured to be interdisciplinary with interior design, landscape architecture and architecture students giving them a cross-disciplinary experience similar to that of a design firm. The ICE Silo fits the studio’s learning outcomes well, offering students exposure to multiple design aspects of the built environment.

“It’s great working in the collaborative environment of our studio,” said architecture student Daniel Pinto. “We have students from various college disciplines, and it is exciting because I get to hear from different perspectives. This project is probably the most fleshed out project I’ve worked on so far, and I think that speaks to all the disciplines working together.”

Kelly said he feels this project is an odd twist of fate if you look at it historically.

“If you think about where this facility will be located, it will be situated in a missile silo,” said Kelly. “I think there’s some real poetry in modifying a facility whose purpose was once meant for mass destruction and replacing it with a research center which will help us better understand environmental issues and climate change, therefore helping to save our planet and our future, rather than destroying it.”

Studio Student Collaborators:

Jace Armstrong

Kate Brashear

Paulina Garcia

Jampé Gergen

Anna Heilhecker

Luryn Hendrickson

Haley Herman

Nikita Mansinghani

Caleb Mohnike

Paul Mullins

Daniel Pinto

William Roarty

Xanthe Steffen

Eliot Stoner

Trent Weatherwax

Renee Zandt