Alert, on the northern tip of Canada's Ellesmere Island, is the world's most northerly continuously inhabited place. It was established in 1950 as a United States-Canada Joint Arctic Weather Station. Alert was named for HMS Alert, the flagship of the British North Polar Expedition of 1875-1876 led by Sir George Nares. HMS Alert overwintered near Cape Sheridan just east of Alert. At the turn of the century, Commander Robert Peary established camps in the Alert area during his three expeditions toward the North Pole.
Although northern Ellesmere is known to the Inuit as "the land beyond the land of the people," archaeological evidence shows that people of the Thule and Independence cultures did live and travel in the area. Today the closest settlements to Alert are the communities in the Avanersuaq (Thule district) of Greenland located 675 km southeast, and Grise Firord located 750 km south on Ellesmere Island's south coast. Alert is just over 800 km south of the North Pole.
The Royal Canadian Air Force established an experimental wireless station at Alert in 1 956. This evolved into the Alert Wireless Station and became Canadian Forces Station Alert (CFS Alert) in 1966. The location was strategic for intercepting radio signals from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and for listening to radio traffic from ships and submarines operating in northern waters. As the Cold War among the allies and the Soviet Block and Eastern Europe set in, CFS Alert grew from a staff of 27 running a one-hut operation to a station with over 30 buildings. At the peak of activity in the 1980s, over 300 people often inhabited Alert during the summer.
The annual resupply to Alert has involved hundreds of tons of food and materials, half a million gallons of fuel, and hundreds of personnel. The resupply of Alert by icebreaker ended in 1953 due to the short season of open water and the difficulties of ice navigation. After 1954, ship and aircraft delivered supplies and equipment to the Thule air base in Greenland and then airlifted a resupply mission code-named Operation Boxtop to Alert. In 1961, the Hercules C-130 transport aircraft replaced the C-119 Boxcars used originally.
The original accommodations at Alert comprised prefabricated huts. Services were minimal. An impressive expansion program between 1975 and 1984 saw CFS Alert equipped with modern buildings with more comfortable accommodations and extensive facilities for recreation. Most members of the military are posted to Alert for six months, although weather station personnel served for one year. Women began serving at CFS Alert in 1980.
Since the very beginning, Alert has provided accommodation and logistical support for scientific research and exploration. The Polar Continental Shelf Project maintained a research base at Alert in the 1960s. With the easing of the Cold War tensions and with great advances in communications technology, the station was downsized in the 1990s, yet remains an active outpost of the Canadian Forces. The original buildings and weather station were demolished in 1996.
The attractions of Alert include cairns and artifacts from both Nares's and Peary's expeditions, the remnants of two aircraft crashes, ice caves, and deposits of quartz crystals. Wildlife commonly observed in Alert includes wolves, muskoxen, Peary caribou, Arctic fox, Arctic hare, Arctic terns, ivory gulls, and Arctic char. In recognition of the importance of northern Ellesmere Island to Canada's heritage, the area surrounding Alert is protected as part of Quttinirpaaq National Park.
David R. Gray
See also British Arctic Expedition, 1875-1876; Ellesmere Island; Militarization of the Arctic in the West; Peary, Robert E.; Thule Air Base
Baril, Gerald, "Room at the top." Sentinel, 3 (1980): 7-10 Gray, David Robert, Alert, Beyond the Inuit Lands: The Story of Canadian Forces Station Alert, Ottawa: Borealis Press, 1997 Johnson Jr., J. Peter, "The establishment of Alert, N.W.T.,
Canada." Arctic, 43(1) (1990): 21-34 Kobalenko, Jerry, The Horizontal Everest: Extreme Journeys on
Ellesmere Island, Toronto: Penguin, 2002 Lanken, Dane & Janice Lang, "On Alert: at the top of Ellesmere Island, Canada's military listens in on the neighbours and perfects the art of ""hearing" sea traffic." Canadian Geographic, 120(7) (2000): 58-72 Lee, Robert Mason, Death and Deliverance, Toronto:
Macfarlane Walter and Ross, 1992 MacDonald, Stewart D., "Report of Biological Investigations at Alert, N.W.T.," National Museum of Canada, Bulletin No. 128, Ottawa: Queen's Printer, 1953
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