CFS ALERT, NUNAVUT — Welcome to the northern edge of Canada.
The edge of nowhere might be a more fitting description for this military outpost, perched on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island, far from civilization, a dot of humanity in otherwise empty and frozen expanse.
The six-hour flight from Trenton, Ont. to Alert — covering some 4,300 km, almost the distance between Halifax and Vancouver — is a testament to the scale of the country and the vast expanse of the Arctic. But this outpost is at the extreme limits of Canadian turf.
“It’s absolutely nowhere. There is only one place to go. South,” quipped Chief Petty Officer, 2nd Class, Dan Williams as he was en route to the station in late January to begin a three-month stint.
At 82 degrees, 30 minutes, north latitude, Alert’s claim to fame is the most northern permanent inhabited station in the world. The North Pole is a mere 817 km north. The closest settlement is Grise Fjord, about 725 km south.
For more than half a century, Canada has maintained a presence here, starting as a weather station in the early 1950s, then evolving a few years later into a signals and intelligence post with a still-secret mission.
As intelligence expert Wesley Wark notes, its mere existence is a feat of engineering. Its day-to-day operation is a feat of logistics.
Everything arrives by air — from the green grapes, fresh milk and crispy vegetables in the cafeteria to the stockpile of fuel used for the generators that keep the lights on and the buildings warm, to the fleet of vehicles that shuttle people around the site.
Today, the station carries on weather research as the home of Environment Canada’s Global Atmosphere Observatory for atmospheric research on climate change and air quality in the Arctic.
But the government remains guarded about other work done at the station, run by the military.
Maj. Walter Michalchuk, whose command of the station just ended, says the outpost has three roles — signals intelligence, sovereignty and science.
“We exercise sovereignty just by being there. We support several northern sovereignty exercises a year. We are huge supporter of Environment Canada and all the scientific work that goes on there. The missions complement each other,” Michalchuk said.
“We support several different nations in the processing of the signals data, NORAD primarily,” he said in an interview.
Wark says the station owes its existence as a signals site to its close neighbour — Russia, which lies just over the horizon to the north. In fact, from here, Moscow is closer than Ottawa.
Back when the station was built, Russia was the Soviet Union and the Cold War was heating up. From this frozen location, the station could capture the electronic signals from Soviet naval bases and military installations that bounced off the atmosphere.
“It was in such a remarkably opportune location in its day,” said Wark, a visiting professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.
“Alert was one of the principal intercept sites for Soviet military communications around their ballistic missile program. That was its early purpose,” he said.
Wark speculates that its mission has changed to intercept satellite communications. It could also monitor transmissions among Russian military aircraft. Whether Russia remains the prime target is a question mark, too.
The Cold War is over. Technology has changed. The station is smaller today — under 100 personnel from 200 several decades ago — thanks to automation and the shifting of the analysis work to sites in southern Canada.
And yet the station carries on.
“Who knows what it gets but it must get enough to justify the considerable expense involved in maintaining it,” Wark said.
“It’s kind of overcome technological change. It’s moved from the era of radio waves bouncing off the ionosphere to satellites chattering away in outer space. But it has maintained its value,” Wark said.
“The only constant is it’s still cold, it’s still for most of the year and bloody difficult, sometimes dangerous to resupply.”
Indeed, if humans had an outpost on Mars, it might feel much like this. A hostile, even life-threatening environment outside. Inside, living areas, recreation and work areas and administration offices are contained in a series of inter-connected units. The isolated outpost depends on weekly resupply to haul in everything needed to exist.
A two-storey building serves as the station’s administration and social hub, housing the “Igloo Gardens” restaurant, two messes for social gatherings, a theatre and library. The food gets good reviews, thanks to regular deliveries of fresh fruits and vegetables that allow cooks to serve up a menu as good as any down south.
Fire is perhaps the biggest threat to the station, a reality driven home by the firefighting gear that is stored in the main hallway — lengths of hose and turnout gear and air tanks for the crews. In a catastrophic fire, the breezeways that link the accommodation wings can be demolished to isolate the fire and save the adjacent buildings.
Medical emergencies are another big risk. If there is any doubt about the isolation, it is driven home by the medical questionnaire required of all visitors. It starkly warns that in the event a medical emergency, evacuation from the station can be “extremely difficult.” Indeed, during the winter, weather and operational challenges can make Alert completely inaccessible for more than a week at a time.
“During these periods, patients cannot be evacuated and consumable supplies cannot be replenished.”
Williams feels the isolation more than most based here. He is a physician assistant. Together with a medical technician, they are responsible for well-being of the personnel and tend to the medical emergencies.
He has served in Bosnia, Sierra Leone and survived firefights in Afghanistan. But his assignment in Alert is the most stressful of all, he says, because of the long wait if he has to call for help.
“The evacuation time is extremely long,” he says.