Alert, Nunavut: Top of the World

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Alert, Nunavut, Canada on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island is the northernmost inhabited community on earth. The North Pole is only 508 miles away.

The community was named after the HMS Alert, the first ship to reach the north end of Ellesmere Island in 1875. Originally an Inuit community, Alert now houses Canadian Forces Station Alert, a weather station, a Global Atmosphere Watch laboratory, and an airport. There are also five permanent residents.

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Daylight and darkness in Alert are five months long. In the month between those periods, the sun bobs above and below the horizon, giving the illusion of normal days, even though the length of daylight and darkness varies. Temperatures reach above freezing only in July and August. In winter, temperatures around -40 °C are considered normal.

CFS Alert

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Canadian Forces Station Alert is an intelligence signal receiving station. In its heyday, CFS Alert had a crew of over 200 people at a time. In the mid 90s, it was converted to remote-control operations, and the staff has been reduced to a crew of 74. They call themselves "The Frozen Chosen." The Canadian government is gradually turning over some of the operations at Alert to private contractors. Learn more about the technical operations at CFS Alert here.

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Military doctors note that new arrivals at CFS Alert invariably gained weight. The food is reported to be excellent, and commanding officers encourage personnel to become socially active. One source of entertainment is CHAR 105.9FM, the base radio station. Shown are Derek Gauthier and Eric Payne on air in 2004.

Airport

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The Alert Airport is served by military flights only. Supplies for Alert are brought in from the US Air Force base in Thule, Greenland during Operation Boxtop. Twice a year, cargo planes bring in 267,000 imperial gallons of fuel and 738,000 pounds of supplies. Last fall, three Canadian CC-130s and one civilian C-130 were in operation 24 hours a day delivering load after load of supplies to Alert.

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There have been two fatal air crashes in the Alert area. In 1950, as the first weather station was set up, an RCAF Lancaster brought in supplies to be dropped by parachute. The chute became entangled in the plane's tail, leading to a crash. All nine crew members died and were buried near the Alert airstrip. In 1991, a C-130 cargo plane running an Operation Boxtop supply flight crashed about 30 kilometers short of Alert. Four crew members died in the crash, the pilot died while waiting for rescue, and 13 survived. A 1993 movie, Ordeal in the Arctic, tells the story of that crash.

GAW

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Alert also has the Dr. Neil Trivett Global Atmosphere Watch Observatory. The GAW laboratory monitors background concentrations of trace gasses. It is an official greenhouse gas comparison site, measuring changes in the atmosphere over time. It's a cool place to work.

Nature

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As cold as it is, Alert is not completely barren. Wildlife includes muskoxen, arctic hares, foxes, caribou, birds, and wolves. They're drawn to the fresh water of Dumbell Lake, which also supplies water to Alert. Vegetation is limited to plants that will flourish during the months of July and August, then survive over winter.

Anniversary

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The first weather station was established at Alert in 1950. The Canadian military took over operations and established the signal receiving station in 1958. The 50th anniversary of Sigint (signal intelligence) was celebrated last September with a reunion of Alert veterans.

You'll find a lot more on Alert by following the highlighted links. Also, watch a couple of videos give you an idea of what Alert is like in summer and the rest of the year.

See also: The Coldest Places on Earth

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March 31, 2009 - 4:03am
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