A legacy of research in a harsh environment

April 30, 2015

Alert, Nunavut sits at the northern tip of Ellesmere Island in Canada’s High Arctic. It is the most northern permanently inhabited location in the world. Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) has been conducting research at Alert and in the High Arctic for the past 60 years.

CFS Alert

Canadian Forces Station (CFS) Alert was named after a British ship, Her Majesty's Ship (HMS) Alert, which wintered in a small bay near Cape Sheridan (which is 10 kilometres east of CFS Alert) between 1875 and 1876. She was under the command of Sir George Nares, a veteran of the search for the ill-fated Franklin expedition. His expedition, an effort to reach the North Pole, was the first to reach Ellesmere Island and sailed further north than any other expedition at that time.

A station in Alert was first settled in 1950 as a joint Canada-US weather station. The weather service still exists, and is run today by Environment Canada.

On September 1, 1958, Alert began its operational role as a signals intelligence unit of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). At that time, it became the Alert Wireless Station and was under the command of the Canadian Army.

 

“Perhaps the most important result of nearly 20 years of activity in northern Ellesmere Island has been to maintain within a nucleus of Arctic specialists in the fields of geophysics and military geography and logistics, whose knowledge can be tapped on problems of military commitment in the Arctic.” - Geoffrey Hattersley-Smith

CFS Alert came under the command of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in 2009 and is now a unit of 8 Wing Trenton, Ontario. Over the years it has hosted a number of other Government of Canada departments that conduct research related to weather, the ozone-layer, wildlife, plants and geology.

Sovereignty

From the outset the Canadian government was interested in Alert as a means to exercise Canada's sovereignty in the High Arctic. Alert's location, being closer to Moscow than it is to Ottawa, gave it an obvious value during the Cold War.

In 1953 the U.S. submarine Nautilus completed the first under-ice crossing of the Arctic Ocean making the CAF more aware of a need to establish a presence and conduct surveillance in the Arctic.

“Whatever the future may hold for the Arctic islands, it would be well to invest strongly in scientific exploration as the cheapest and most effective means of demonstrating Canadian sovereignty there,” wrote Geoffrey Hattersley-Smith, in the DRDC publication North of Latitude Eighty in 1974.

Getting to know the Arctic

Before defence researchers began mapping the northern coast of Ellesmere Island in 1953, maps were based on data from explorers at the turn of the century.

Glaciologist Geoffrey Hattersley-Smith conducted field research by travelling by dog sled with a geologist and several Greenlandic Inuit. Their findings and DRDC’s continued investigation into the effect of oceanographic and sea ice conditions on surface navigation and underwater sound set the stage for the research that has been conducted since.

Unique challenges of the High Arctic

Conducting experiments in Alert presents unique challenges compared to any other region in the world.

In April the temperature is expected to hover between -20 to -30°C.  The multi-year ice above the frigid waters is anticipated to be well over a metre thick, making underwater sensing and surveillance research difficult.

Arctic experts

“Perhaps the most important result of nearly 20 years of activity in northern Ellesmere Island has been to maintain within the Defence Research Board [the precursor to DRDC] a nucleus of Arctic specialists in the fields of geophysics and military geography and logistics, whose knowledge can be tapped on problems of military commitment in the Arctic,” wrote Hattersley-Smith, back in 1974.

The Underwater Sensing team from DRDC’s Atlantic Research Centre are the modern Arctic specialists. With some members having 20 or 30 years of experience in the High Arctic, they are DRDC’s foremost experts in underwater acoustics and surveillance. DRDC’s logistics coordinators are also experts in their own right. They know which tools the science team needs and how best to operate them in the Arctic’s challenging environment.

Stay tuned for more images and facts about DRDC’s history in the Arctic on our Twitter feed.

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