Approximately 100 Canadian Armed Forces personnel, including several aircrew and aircraft from the Royal Canadian Air Force, and civilian employees from the Department of National Defence have completed Operation Nevus 2016 – the performance of essential preventive and corrective maintenance on the High Arctic Data Communications System (HADCS) in and around Canadian Forces Station (CFS) Alert, Nunavut, located on Ellesmere Island, from June 1 to 28, 2016.
The month-long operation involved Information Operations Group technicians, geomatics technicians from the Mapping and Charting Establishment, and several aircrew and aircraft from the Royal Canadian Air Force, including a CC-130J Hercules and a CC-177 Globemaster from 8 Wing Trenton, Ontario; three CH-146 Griffons from 430 Tactical Helicopter Squadron in Valcartier, Quebec; a CH-147F Chinook from 450 Tactical Helicopter Squadron in Petawawa, Ontario; and a CC-138 Twin Otter from Yellowknife-based 440 Transport Squadron.
During Operation Nevus 2016, technicians travelled between CFS Alert and Fort Eureka by helicopter, maintaining and repairing communication components and sites. The Mapping and Charting team conducted surveys of CFS Alert, Fort Eureka and the HADCS sites.
“Operation Nevus 2016 has been a success due, in large part, to the initiative and energy demonstrated by this highly professional team,” said Major Meagan McGrath, commanding officer of Task Force Nevus 2016. “Each member of the operation worked tirelessly to ensure that his or her assigned tasks were completed to the highest standards and with due regard for the environment in which they operated. I am privileged to have had the opportunity to work with such a highly capable team, and I am proud of the work they have accomplished during this year’s operation.”Operation Nevus is one of an annual series of operations conducted by Joint Task Force North in the High Arctic that contributes to Canadian sovereignty.
Canadian Forces Station Alert
Canadian Forces Station (CFS) Alert is the most northerly, permanently inhabited location in the world, located only 817 kilometres from the geographic North Pole.
On April 1, 2009, the Royal Canadian Air Force took command of CFS Alert. It is now a unit of 8 Wing Trenton, Ontario.
The station was first settled in the early 1950s as a weather station of the Joint Arctic Weather Station (JAWS) System. On September 1, 1958, Alert began its operational role as a signals intelligence unit of the Canadian Forces (CF). At that time, it became the Alert Wireless Station and was under the command of the Canadian Army.
Canadian Forces personnel, Department of National Defence employees and Department of the Environment employees comprise the entire population of CFS Alert.
CFS Alert maintains signals intelligence facilities to support of Canadian military operations. Signals intelligence is conducted remotely, using the equipment and facilities located Alert.
Personnel at CFS Alert also maintain a geolocation capability to support operations and High Frequency and Direction Finding (HFDF) facilities to support search and rescue and other operations, and provide support to Environment Canada and Arctic researchers. Alert also plays a key role in projecting Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic.
The Dr. Neil Trivett Global Atmosphere Watch Observatory at Alert belongs to Environment Canada. It provides data for scientific assessments and other atmospheric research that improves understanding of climate change and air quality in the Arctic and around the world. Alert is also home to an Environment Canada Upper Air Weather Station.
Over the years, technological advances led to the reduction in the number of personnel required for the operational/signals intelligence role.
There are approximately 55 full-time military, civilian and contracted personnel provide services that include administration, operations, construction engineering, transport, supply, food services and medical services. Environment Canada has up to four employees on station at a time. As well, many people come to Alert on a temporary basis.
The tour of duty for most of the permanent positions at CFS Alert is for six months, with some specialized positions being designated as requiring a rotation every three months.
Military personnel who acquire an aggregate of 180 days of honourable service while posted to Alert, or while serving with a military force operationally deployed to or at Alert are eligible for the Special Service Medal.
Eureka, also located on Ellesmere Island is at 80° North latitude or about 400 kilometres south of Alert, making it the second most northerly permanently inhabited location in the world. Eureka consists an airport, “Fort Eureka” (quarters for military personnel maintaining communications equipment), and an Environment Canada Weather Station. It was established 60 years ago as part of the Canada-U.S. network of post-war Arctic weather stations.
Operation Boxtop, which resupplies Alert on a semi-annual basis, also resupplies Eureka.
The station’s motto, in the Inuit language, Inuktitut, is INUIT NUNANGATA UNGATA, meaning “Beyond the Inuit land”.
The motto signifies that no-one, including the Inuit, has been known to go and permanently live as far north as Alert, except as Canadian Forces, National Defence or other federal employees posted there.
CFS Alert is situated on the north eastern tip of Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago in the territory of Nunavut.
It is found at 82° 30′ North latitude, and 62° 19′ West longitude. This is approximately the same longitude as Charlottetown, P.E.I.
It is only 817 kilometres from the geographic North Pole.
The closest Inuit settlement is Grise Fjord, located about 725 kilometres to the south. The Environment Canada weather station at Eureka is about 400 kilometers to the south. Although Edmonton is the nearest Canadian city at 3,475 kilometres, Stockholm, Sweden is closer – is only 3,282 kilometres away.
CFS Alert is always on Ottawa time, either Eastern Standard or Eastern Daylight Saving Time.
The often-photographed signposts at Alert portray other distances from Alert, including:
|Vancouver, BC||4,264 kilometres|
|Winnipeg, MB||3,990 kilometres|
|Toronto, ON||4,344 kilometres|
|Ottawa, ON||4,151 kilometres|
|Montreal, QC||4,135 kilometres|
|Halifax, NS||4,183 kilometres|
|Resolute Bay, Nunavut||1,046 kilometres|
|Thule Air Force Base, Greenland||676 kilometres|
Geographic Environment of CFS Alert
The terrain in the vicinity of Canadian Forces Station Alert is rugged and undulating with hills and valleys. The United States mountain range is visible to the west, and on a clear day the peaks and cliffs of Greenland can be seen 56 kilometres to the southeast.
Pack ice is usually present offshore during summer and is frozen solid from shore to horizon in winter. The coastline is irregular with many small inlets, bays and points of land. The rocks in the area consist almost exclusively of slate and shale, which break down easily, forming ravines and canyons in the plateau regions, and stony clay along the coast. In summer, the shale disintegrates to a very fine penetrating dust, and the ground thaws in some places to a depth of one meter, under which permafrost is found.
Although the soil is poor and growing conditions are extremely harsh, more than 70 different species of plants are found in the area. Vegetation manages to exist in the lee of hills and cracks in the ground, and during most of July and August many miniature flowers grow, resulting in a profusion of reds, purples, whites, and yellows from every available sheltered place. Common plant types are blue grass, chickweed, arctic poppy, saxifrage, arctic willow, and mountain avens.
There is an astonishing variety of wildlife in the area, but the total population is small due to the scarcity of available food. Arctic hare and fox are common to the area, while seals, arctic wolves, musk-ox, caribou, lemmings, and weasels (ermine) are occasionally seen.
Many types of birds nest here in the summer, but are gone by September. They include glaucous and ivory gulls, longtailed jaegers, sandpipers, turnstones, knots, snow buntings, oldsquaws, and occasionally snow geese. Although insect life seems to be almost non-existent, spiders, deer flies and warble (blue) flies abound on Ellesmere Island. In some areas, large numbers of small flies swarm a few inches above rocks on hillside heated by the sun, but they are not bothersome.
The most noticeable differences in the environment compared to southern Canada are the periods of full daylight and full darkness, lower ambient temperatures, and lower annual precipitation.
From approximately April 8 to September 5, there is absolutely no night time. At the peak of summer, the sun revolves around the horizon, rising no higher than about 30° above the horizon at noon, and dipping to about 16° above the horizon at midnight.
From October 10 to March 1, there is no direct sunlight, and between these two extremes there is a fairly rapid transition period, which takes approximately six weeks.
During the summer months, CFS Alert experiences about 28 frost-free days. The temperature rises to an average daily high of approximately 10° Celsius, with 20° Celsius being the record high.
In July, the warmest month, the daily mean is 4° Celsius. During the winter the temperature typically hovers around -40° Celsius for extended period; the record low is -50° Celsius. Severe storms can appear on short notice, and when this happens, visibility quickly deteriorates to zero because of blowing snow. The human body’s ability to keep itself warm is also severely reduced as the wind gets stronger. This effect, known as ‘wind chill’, makes the temperature feel far colder than the thermometer indicates.
An example of this occurred on Jan. 23, 1993, when the thermometer indicated -45° Celsius, but with the 40 km/h winds, it felt like -71° Celsius. Human skin will freeze in less than one minute if left unprotected at temperatures below -30° Celsius, so it is imperative at CFS Alert that everyone dress for the worst when leaving the immediate camp area.
The area surrounding CFS Alert, like much of the high Arctic, is classified as desert. It may seem strange to picture a place covered with snow most of the year as a desert, but the average precipitation that falls in the area of CFS Alert is less than that in the Sahara Desert.
Since 1951, when recordings began, the mean annual rainfall at Alert has been only 17.5 millimetres, falling almost entirely in July and August. Snow, however, falls in every month of the year, with an annual average of 148.1 centimetres. September has the greatest snowfall of any month, averaging 33 centimetres.
CFS Alert and Eureka were featured as one of Environment Canada’s top weather stories of 2007:
Worst Weather on Earth!
“In April, after nine days of slogging through blinding daily blizzards and at times measuring their progress by inches, eight members of the Canadian Forces’ Arctic sovereignty patrol ended their mission between Eureka and Alert, along a route believed never to have been taken before. They traveled by snowmobile in temperatures of -50°C and winds that regularly exceeded 100 km/h. The team was one of three that traveled a combined 5,589 kilometres over 17 days to assert Canadian sovereignty in the North. The biting winds and blowing snow meant it took up to two hours just to put up tents, and a simple task like putting gasoline into a snowmobile became an ordeal.”
Canadian Forces Station Alert (CFS Alert) was named after a British ship, Her Majesty’s Ship Alert, which wintered in a small bay near Cape Sheridan – 9.7 kilometres east of today’s CFS Alert – in 1875-1876. 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 the uninhabited Ellesmere Island and came further north than any other expedition to that time.
CFS Alert was first established in 1950 as a Joint Arctic Weather Station (JAWS) site. The weather station still exists, run today by Environment Canada.
From the outset of the JAWS site, the Canadian government was interested in Alert as a means to exercise Canada’s sovereignty in the High Arctic. Alert’s location, closer to Moscow than to Ottawa and closer to the mainland of the Soviet Union (now Russia) than to Frobisher Bay (now Iqaluit) gave it an obvious Cold War value.
As a result, in 1956 a Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) communications team was assigned to conduct experimental research on High Arctic Long Range Communications.
Ever expanding, Alert became the “Alert Wireless Station” in 1958 under the command of the Army. In the 1960s, as a result of unification, the Alert Wireless Station became Canadian Forces Station Alert. It reported to the Canadian Forces Supplementary Radio System (CFSRS, the predecessor to the Canadian Forces Information Operations Group).
Until March 31, 2009, CFS Alert reported through the Canadian Forces Information Operations Group to the Associate Deputy Minister (Information Management).
On April 1, 2009, the Station became part of the Air Force and a unit of 8 Wing Trenton, Ontario, thus returning to its origins as an Air Force installation.
The handover of command authority came on the heels of equipment and process modernization at the station, which reduced the number of personnel needed to manage the station, causing a swing in the balance of activity.
As technology advanced, operations at Alert started being done remotely,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart Beal, of the Directorate of Air Programs at the time of the handover. “
Now we’re at a point where most of the military personnel at Alert are support personnel.”
As a result, logistical support that was already being provided by the Air Force became the station’s focal area of activity, demanding a formal shift in command authority. Tasks that now fall under the purview of the Air Force include the operation of the station, military facilities and equipment, as well as the management of all agreements, contracts and policies associated with Alert.
Canada Command is responsible for conducting Operation Boxtop twice a year, which resupplies both CFS Alert and the weather station at Eureka. The replenishment flights transit through the United States’ Thule Air Force Base (AFB) in Greenland.
The area has been the last stepping stone for most of the attempts to reach the North Pole. Expeditions to the Canadian Arctic Archipelago occur on a regular basis and the Department of National Defence reviews requests for support on a case-by-case basis.
High Arctic Data Communication System (HADCS)
In March 2008, 15 members of 444 (Combat Support) Squadron in 5 Wing Goose Bay, N.L. deployed to CFS Alert with two CH-146 Griffons to help crews conduct maintenance on the station’s High Arctic Data Communication Systems (HADCS).
The HADCS is a secure data communication system between CFS Alert and Ottawa. The system is, in part, composed of a chain of six, line-of-sightmicrowave repeaters between CFS Alert to Eureka with a satellite link between Eureka and Ottawa.
CFS Alert – A Brief Timeline (courtesy IM Wired to the Web)
|1875||The crew of HMS Alertwinters off Cape Sheridan, not farfrom the current site of CFS Alert.|
|1948||C.J. Hubbard, Director of the Arctic Operations Project of the US Weather Bureau and W.I. Griffith, the representative of the Canadian Meteorological Division, examined the area and selected the future site for the station.|
|1950||Alert is established asa Joint Arctic Weather Station (JAWS) site, partof a chain of Arctic weather stations operated by the United States and Canada.|
|1950||A Royal Canadian Air Force Lancaster aircraftcrashes during re-supply mission, killing all nine crewmembers and passengers.|
|1956||The Royal Canadian Air Force assigns a communications team to Alert for experimental research.|
|1957||HAM (amateur) radio is firstused at Alert.|
|1958||On September 1, the Canadian Army establishes the Alert Wireless Station and begins signals intelligence operations on the site.|
|1959||First major expansion of Alert occurs.|
|1966||On July 11, the Canadian Forces Supplementary Radio System (CFSRS, the predecessor to the Canadian Forces Information Operations Group), is authorized as a formation. Sites belonging to the organization had their names changed from wireless stations to Canadian Forces Stations (CFS), including CFS Alert.|
|1966||With unification, the Alert Wireless Station become CFS Alert.|
|1980||UHF link between Alert and Eureka is established, providing first telephone service into Alert.|
|1980||Women serve in Alert for first time as part of the Women In Non-Traditional Roles study done by the Canadian Forces.|
|1981||Construction of High Arctic Data Communication System (HADCS) begins; completed in 1982.|
|1983||Employment of women at CFS Alert is fully authorized.|
|1991||Operation Boxtop Flight 22 crashes near Alert, killing five.|
|1997||Final HAM radio contact made from Alert.|
|1997||Equipment remoting project is completed, allowing Alert’s manning to be reduced from more than 200 down to 69 personnel.|
|1998||HADCS II upgrade completed.|
|2008||Number of people reduced to 21 military and 32 civilians.|
|2008||On September 1, CFS Alert celebrated its 50th anniversary.|
|2009||On April 1, the Air Force took command responsibility for CFS Alert.|
 To learn more about Nares’ expedition and other Arctic explorers, read Pierre Berton’s book, The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole 1818-1909, first published in 1988.)