Canadian Forces Station Alert

Located on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, CFS Alert is the most northerly, permanently inhabited location in the world, located 817 kilometres (km) from the geographic North Pole.

On April 1, 2009, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) took command of CFS Alert. It is a unit of 8 Wing, headquartered in Trenton, Ontario (ON).

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. At that time, it became the Alert Wireless Station and was under the command of the Canadian Army.

Today, Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel, Department of National Defence (DND) employees, Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) employees, and contracted employees comprise the entire population of CFS Alert.

CFS Alert maintains signals intelligence facilities to support Canadian military operations.

Personnel at CFS Alert also maintain a geolocation capability to support operations and High Frequency and Direction Finding facilities to support Search and Rescue and other operations, and to provide support to Environment and Climate Change Canada researchers. Alert also plays a key role in projecting Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic.

The Doctor Neil Trivett Global Atmosphere Watch Observatory at Alert belongs to ECCC. 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 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 and civilian personnel at the station.

Typically, most CAF personnel spend six months at CFS Alert, 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

Eureka, located on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, is at 80° north latitude, about 400 km south of CFS Alert, making it the second most northerly permanently inhabited location in the world. Eureka consists of an airport, "Fort Eureka" (quarters for military personnel maintaining communications equipment), and an ECCC weather station. It was established approximately 70 years ago as part of the Canada-United States (U.S.) network of post-war Arctic weather stations.

Location

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, Prince Edward Island.

CFS Alert is 817 km from the geographic North Pole.

The closest settlement is Grise Fjord, located about 725 km to the south. The ECCC weather station at Eureka is about 400 km to the south. Although Edmonton, Alberta is the nearest Canadian city at 3,475 km, Stockholm, Sweden is closer at just 3,282 km 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 km
Winnipeg, MB 3,990 km
Toronto, ON 4,344 km
Ottawa, ON 4,151 km
Montreal, QC 4,135 km
Halifax, NS

4,183 km

Resolute Bay, Nunavut 1,046 km
Thule Air Force Base (United States Air Force (USAF)), Greenland 676 km

Geographic Environment of CFS Alert

The terrain in the vicinity of CFS Alert is rugged and undulating with hills and valleys. The U.S. mountain range is visible to the west, and on a clear day the peaks and cliffs of Greenland can be seen 56 km to the south-east.

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 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 in the area, while seals, arctic wolves, musk-ox, caribou, lemmings, and weasels (ermine) are occasionally seen.

Many types of birds nest in the summer, but are gone by September. They include glaucous and ivory gulls, longtailed jaegers, sandpipers, turnstones, knots, snow buntings, 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.

Environment

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 an extended period; the record low is -50° Celsius. Severe storms can appear on short notice, and when this happens, visibility quickly deteriorates 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 January 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 (cm). September has the greatest snowfall of any month, averaging 33 cm.

Alert badge

Inuit Nunangata Ungata
(Beyond the Inuit land)

CFS Alert's official crest and motto clearly reflect the Station's geographic position as the most northerly, permanently inhabited location in the world.

The heraldic description is as follows: "parted per pale sable and or, above a base indented on four argent, parted dancetty fesse-wise of two azure and charged with two barrulets wavy argent, a muskox head affronte erased or."

The main feature of the CFS Alert crest is the head of a muskox, a suitably northern animal. Behind the muskox is a background of black and yellow, signifying the periods of total darkness and total sunlight experienced at Alert. Below are two peaks denoting the two mountains to the south, Den Hill and Mount Pullen, between which the sun rises in March. Behind them are the white peaks of the Western Mountains. Below the peaks, a blue band between two white wavy lines signifies the Lincoln Sea and the water and ice pack surrounding Ellesmere Island. The crest is encircled by a wreath of gold maple leaves and with the royal crown of Queen Elizabeth II, Sovereign of Canada, on top.

History

CFS Alert was named after a British ship, Her Majesty's Ship Alert, which wintered in a small bay near Cape Sheridan – 9.7 km east of today's CFS Alert – in 1875-1876. The ship 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.[1]

CFS Alert was first established in 1950 as a JAWS site. 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 than to Frobisher Bay (now Iqaluit) gave it an obvious Cold War value.

As a result, in 1956, an 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 Canadian Army. In the 1960s, as a result of unification, the Alert Wireless Station became CFS Alert. It reported to the Canadian Forces Supplementary Radio System. 

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 heritage as an RCAF 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 it, 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 RCAF became the Station's focal area of activity, demanding a formal shift in command authority. Tasks that now fall under the purview of the RCAF include the operation of the Station, military facilities and equipment, as well as the management of all agreements, contracts, and policies associated with Alert.

Canadian Joint Operations 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 USAF base in Thule, Greenland.

Expeditions to the Canadian Arctic Archipelago occur on a regular basis and the DND 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 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-sight microwave 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 far from 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 as a JAWS site, part of a chain of Arctic weather stations operated by the United States and Canada.
1950 A RCAF Lancaster aircraft crashes during re-supply mission, killing all nine crew members and passengers.
1956 The RCAF assigns a communications team to Alert for experimental research.
1957 HAM (amateur) radio is first used 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 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 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.
2009 On April 1, the RCAF took command responsibility for CFS Alert.
2018 On September 1, CFS Alert celebrated its 60th anniversary.

[1] 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.)