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November/December 2000 issue

Alert, Nunavut

In the November/December 2000 issue of Canadian Geographic, Dane Lanken takes readers to Canada’s most northerly community, Alert, on the northern tip of Nunavut's Ellesmere Island. Read "On Alert" to find out how the military listens in on its neighbours and monitors sea traffic, and click other headings for more.

On Alert
At the top of Ellesmere Island, Canada’s military listens in on the neighbours and perfects the art of ‘hearing’ sea traffic
By Dane Lanken with photography by Janice Lang

On Alert | Northern Shortcut | Alert facts | Alert in brief | Links

Cpl. Ken Forsyth contemplates the glistening vista at Alert as he transports equipment back from an ice camp set up for scientists. Rebel is one of two sophisticated all-terrain vehicles delivered, like everything else at the Canadian Forces station, in a Hercules aircraft.
CLEAR SKIES, NO WIND. The working conditions are perfect. It might be -35°C, but that is an advantage when conducting experiments in oceanacoustics. The intense cold creates vast tracts of solid, motionless ice that allow investigators to listen in a way that wouldn’t be possible in more temperate climes. For this very reason, a team of scientists fiew to the northern tip of the most northerly island in Canada’s Arctic Archipelago last spring to dip their microphones through holes in the ice and see how sounds fare and fade in the farthest reaches of the Arctic Ocean.

The researchers’ destination was a dot on the north coast of Ellesmere Island called Alert or, to be more formal, Canadian Forces Station Alert. It is roughly 4,000 kilometres — or eight hours of engine roar in a Hercules cargo plane — north of Canada’s southern cities, about 2,000 kilometres from the nearest tree and just 817 kilometres of frozen ocean away from the geographical North Pole. Set up exactly 50 years ago as a joint Canadian-American weather station, Alert instantly became the northernmost permanently established community on Earth. Its nearest neighbour is Thule, Greenland, 676 kilometres to the south, where there is both an Inuit community and a large U.S. air base.


Many of the scientists who travel to Alert are civilian employees of Canada’s Defence Research Establishment, a branch of the Department of National Defence. They are charged with creating, among other things, the hardware the military needs to guard Canada’s coasts. Listening devices in the ocean, which date back to at least the Second World War, are much cheaper and sometimes more effective than shipboard or even aerial surveillance. They have long been vital in detecting prowling alien submarines and are now finding new uses catching ships that try to avoid radar and photographic detection while carrying illicit drugs or illegal immigrants. So many countries maintain such eavesdropping systems that when an explosion racked the Russian submarine Kursk last August, "everybody," as one Canadian researcher put it, "knew about it right away."

The possibility that global warming will result in much easier navigation through the Northwest Passage in the next decade or two is once again bringing into focus concerns about sovereignty, security and search and rescue in the Far North. And it is giving new urgency to ocean acoustics investigators working to improve remote listening capabilities — particularly the behaviour of sound in and under ice in the Arctic Archipelago, which routinely ranges in thickness from one or two metres to 10 or more.

When the military arrived at Alert in 1958, the station, which is closer to Moscow than Ottawa, became an important listening post for Cold War eavesdropping, something it remained after the Americans left in 1970 and remains today, even if the Cold War has cooled. The operations section of the main complex, devoted to "signals intelligence," is outfitted with shredding machines and is off-limits to all but those with top security clearance.

In spite of Alert’s central military role, it has always accommodated certain scientific endeavours: weather and ozone-layer observations, wildlife and plant studies, geological and continental-shelf investigations and, since the 1970s, ocean acoustics. Last spring, for instance, a party of 17 scientists and technologists - most from the Defence Research Establishment in Halifax, along with a few of their counterparts from Ottawa - headed north for a month of High Arctic experiments. They had the sense to arrive in mid-March, when it was still cold but the sun had reappeared after a five-month absence. Within a couple of weeks, old Sol was hovering day and night along the northern horizon, providing sunlight 24 hours a day.

Their acoustics trials were complicated, highly precise and, for the layperson, not a little abstruse. The general aim was to explore how sound travels through different combinations of water and ice, to determine how to locate sound sources and to zero in on specific sounds while tuning out background noises. In certain regions of the Arctic Ocean, the ice cracks and grinds as it is moved about by wind and currents, and animals add to the din as they go about their daily lives: whales creak and moan; seals click. Still, Arctic waters are a great deal quieter than temperate oceans, in which the clang of countless ship engines causes an unceasing racket. And the waters around Alert are particularly quiet.

At a camp outside Alert, scientist Ron Verrall(LEFT) of Canada’s Defence Research Establishment tries to stay warm as Stan Dosso of the University of Victoria drills a hole for a seismic test.
Just before each test, the scientists shut down their generators and began running their equipment and computers off several dozen car batteries. Lastly, they stopped talking and sat very still, with their feet raised off the ground. "It was usually only for five minutes at a time," says Garry Heard, head of the acoustics team and a veteran polar researcher, "but after a few hours of that, everyone was getting fidgety."

One experiment involved creating a sound at a fixed underwater location — popping light bulbs was a favourite method - then picking up the noise with a series of underwater microphones called hydrophones at another fixed position under the ice. By comparing their calculations based on the collected data to the known location of the sound, the scientists could test the system’s accuracy.

Why light bulbs? "They’re a nice clean source," says Heard, "clean in sound and clean environmentally. We used to use explosives, but they are much more intrusive. Now we put a light bulb in a little frame, lower it on a steel cable about 30 metres, then send a piece of pipe down to pop the bulb. All you end up with is a little extra silica on the sea floor."

In another test, the researchers used a sledgehammer to hit wooden posts that had been frozen into ice and picked up the noise with a wide array of solid-surface microphones known as geophones. This seismic exercise allowed them to determine the speed and intensity of sound through different types of Arctic ice. This far north, the ice varies from smooth, relatively thin one-year pans to compressed multi-year agglomerations tens of metres thick. In addition to its covert listening applications, this research might eventually enable pilots to determine the thickness and nature of ice from an airplane just by dropping a geophone — a boon to cold-weather navigation.

Indeed, the latter commanded roughly half of the scientists’ time at Alert last spring. Work over the past few years had produced a dart-shaped sonobuoy called Icepick, which, when dropped from a plane, sticks into the ice and sends back any sounds it hears. However, a problem of orientation remained.

Cpl. George Gebauer uses a communications cable to talk to the pilot of a Hercules transport plane.
The metre-high Icepick could relay a particular noise — say, the swish of a submarine’s propeller - but it could not ascertain its direction. To impart this ability, the researchers had to provide the sensor with a compass-like device for use in high-latitude regions, since regular compasses don’t work in the High Arctic. They did this with a couple of off-the-shelf global positioning system (GPS) units, which use satellites to pinpoint the holder’s precise location on Earth. Two units were fitted into the Icepick just a finger’s length apart, but this was enough — a monument to the efficacy of the GPS — to give bearings relative to one another and, therefore, to determine the angle at which the sonobuoy landed and the direction of the noise. "It is fortunate it works," says Heard, "and it is amazing."

The scientists conducted all of last spring’s acoustics experiments at a makeshift camp about 10 kilometres from Alert. Using snowmobiles and sleds, they hauled out and back several tonnes of equipment, including a hot-water drill to make holes in the ice, generators, batteries, banks of computers and seven tents with plywood fioors.

While some of the team slept back at Alert, with its private rooms, dining hall and lounge, others preferred the solitude and serenity of the ice camp. Among the latter was scientist Ron Verrall, who e-mailed home rhapsodically about working until midnight, with the sun still shining, the air so still that smoke rose straight from the tent chimneys and the temperature a crisp -44°C. "It was all very pretty," he recalls.

Viewed in the semi-darkness of early spring, a weather building at Alert has a certain eerie beauty. plane.
A cable-controlled underwater vehicle called the Phantom was also hauled to the camp. The Phantom was just a little thing, about a metre wide and a metre and a half long, with two on-board video cameras, a 600-metre control cable and remotely operated "hands" that arranged the lines and hydrophones during underwater trials. It was a far more modest vessel than its predecessor, Theseus, a remote-controlled yellow submarine built for the Defence Research Establishment in Victoria and used in a joint American-Canadian acoustics experiment in 1996. Here, a slim two-millimetre-thick fibre-optic cable was laid on the sea fioor between Alert and a hydrophone array under the ice an astonishing 180 kilometres away. The experiment was successful - the cable was laid, the sub returned - and a new technique proved capable of allowing shore-bound researchers to study under-ice noise and sound propagation. The name Theseus was the obvious choice, given that the Greek hero of that name slew the Minotaur at the heart of a labyrinth and found his way out again by means of a thread he had laid behind him.

Generally, the work of the Defence Research Establishment precedes by a decade or two any actual application by the military. But because of global warming and its apparent effect of thinning Arctic ice, some of the acoustics research conducted last spring might find use much sooner.

"Indications are that the northern basin will change faster than other areas," says Jim Kennedy, head of underwater acoustics at Defence Research in Halifax. "A more navigable Northwest Passage is part of the reason there has been a resurgence of interest in Arctic efforts. It has to do with responsibility for maintaining sovereignty, and one way to demonstrate sovereignty is to know what’s going on."

"In other words, use it or lose it," adds Garry Heard. "Sovereignty is a concern. We work up there, so in some small way, we contribute to it."

Dane Lanken is a contributing editor to Canadian Geographic. Janice Lang is a photographer with the Defence Research Establishment in Ottawa. For the complete history of Alert, check out Alert, Beyond the Inuit Lands: The Story of Canadian Forces Station Alert by David R. Gray (Borealis Press).


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