Canadian Forces Station Alert, also CFS Alert, is a Canadian Armed Forces signals intelligence intercept facility located in Alert, Nunavut on the northeastern tip of Ellesmere Island.
Located in the Qikiqtaaluk Region, Nunavut, Canada, it is the northernmost permanently inhabited place in the world. It takes its name from HMS Alert, which wintered 10 km (6.2 mi) east of the present station off what is now Cape Sheridan, Nunavut in 1875-1876.
Alert (then part of the Northwest Territories) was first inhabited by employees of the Canadian Department of Transport and the United States Weather Bureau in 1950 when the Joint Arctic Weather Station (JAWS) was established. An airfield and small building were built to service various weather monitoring equipment.
This weather station remains in operation to this day, however operations were subsequently handed over to employees of the Canadian Department of the Environment via the Meteorological Service of Canada.
In April 1971 a party of federal and Northwest Territories (NWT) government officials were in Alert trying to reach the North Pole. The Alert Station had been the embarkation point for many North Pole expeditions that relied on weather information supplied by JAWS. The 1971 expedition was led by NWT Commissioner, Stuart Hodgson, and included in his party were representatives of the Prime Minister's office, the Canadian Armed Forces, the federal Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development as well as a large media group including Pat Carney of Gemini Productions, Ed Ogle of Time magazine, Val Wake of CBC News and a television crew from California. While waiting in Alert for a weather window to fly into the Pole, the party's television crew spent a lot of time filming at the weather station. The military was not happy about the film crew working on the station but the JAWS site was seen as being a sort of no-man's land. The Commissioner's party made two attempts to reach the Pole and failed. Some of the incidents surrounding this event are recounted in Val Wake's memoir My Voyage around Spray with Apologies to Captain Joshua Slocum.
The Canadian military was interested in the establishment of JAWS at Alert for several reasons. The JAWS facility extended Canadian sovereignty over a large uninhabited area which Canada claimed as its sovereign territory.
During the Cold War, Alert was strategically important because of its proximity to the Soviet Union; Alert was the closest point in North America to the northwestern area of the Soviet Union. In fact, Alert is closer to Moscow (c. 2,500 mi (4,000 km)) than it is to Ottawa (c. 2,580 mi (4,150 km)). Thus, the possibility of utilizing the site for the purpose of intercepting radio signals was deemed to warrant a military presence.
In 1956, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), which was expanding its presence throughout the high Arctic with the construction of the Distant Early Warning Line radar network, established a building uphill from the DOT's JAWS station to house "High Arctic Long Range Communications Research", or signals intelligence operations.
In 1957, the Alert Wireless Station was conceived as an intercept facility to be jointly staffed by personnel from the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) and the RCAF. Five additional buildings were constructed: a mess, three barracks/accommodations buildings, and a power house and vehicle maintenance building, in addition to the existing operations building, built in 1956. The operations building housed the radio intercept and cryptographic equipment. Up to 24 men would be posted to Alert at any one time. Alert was considered (and remains to this day) a hardship assignment, with no spouses being permitted. Until 1980 only men were permitted to deploy to Alert.
The February 1, 1968 unification of the RCN, RCAF and Canadian Army to form the Canadian Forces saw the Alert Wireless Station change its name to Canadian Forces Station Alert (CFS Alert). Its personnel were no longer drawn from only the Air Force or Navy, but primarily from the Canadian Forces Communications Command.
At its peak, CFS Alert had upwards of 215 personnel posted at any one time. The station became a key asset in the global ECHELON network of the US-UK-CAN-AUS-NZ intelligence sharing alliance, with Alert being privy to many secret Soviet communications regarding land-based and sea-based ICBM test launches and many operational military deployments.
Budget cuts to the Department of National Defence and Canadian Forces in 1994, and modernization of communications equipment, saw CFS Alert downsized to approximately 74 personnel by 1997-1998 when most radio-intercept operations were remotely controlled by personnel at CFS Leitrim. Remaining personnel are responsible for airfield operations, construction/engineering, food service, and logistical/administrative support. Only six personnel are now responsible for actual operations, and control of the facility was passed to DND's Information Management Group following the disbanding of CF Communications Command with force restructuring and cutbacks in the mid-1990s. Several of these personnel are likely also attached to DND's Communications Security Establishment.
With Canada's commitment to the global war on terrorism following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., CFS Alert has received renewed and increased funding to expand its SIGINT capabilities. However, as of April 13, 2006 the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was reporting that the heating costs for the station had risen, in consequence of which the military were proposing to cut back on support trade positions by using private contractors.
Air Command officially took responsibility for CFS Alert from Canadian Forces Information Operations Group (CFIOG) April 1, 2009. There are currently approximately 55 military and civilian personnel permanently stationed in Alert, and the population can rise to over 100 in the summer months and during the semi-annual "Operation Boxtop" resupply missions.
The military has constructed several roads in the area to permit patrolling, as well as for logistics purposes from shore locations near anchorages east of the station, as well as to the airfield. Since Alert has not been regularly accessible by icebreakers due to heavy ice conditions in the Lincoln Sea, resupply is provided by Royal Canadian Air Force transport aircraft which land at the adjacent Alert Airport.
Alert gets no sunshine from the middle of October to end of February every year, and doesn't get light at all for much of that time. Its weather conditions and isolation provide a significant challenge to pilots. This has led to some well-known crashes:On July 31, 1950, around 1700 hours GMT, a RCAF Lancaster 965 from 405 Squadron Greenwood crashed during the establishment of the JAWS weather station when the parachute for resupplies being airdropped became entangled on the tail of the aircraft. The nine crew members were killed. An attempt was made to recover their bodies; an RCAF Canso flying boat was dispatched and landed in Dumbell Bay on August 7. The bodies of the Canadian crew were brought aboard in wooden coffins made from packing crates — the family of Colonel C.J. Hubbard of the United States Weather Bureau requested his remains be buried at Alert — but the combination of the extra weight and a tail wind resulted in an aborted takeoff. The Canso struck ground at the narrow point of Dumbell Bay, damaging the tail section and rendering it useless. Following this, it was decided to bury the crew's remains west of the airstrip, and a military funeral was held the same day. The arrival of the United States Coast Guard icebreaker Eastwind allowed repairs to be made to the Canso. The wreckage of the Lancaster is still visible 500 m (1,600 ft) southwest of the CE building.
On October 11, 1952, an American Military Air Transport Service Douglas C-54 Skymaster crashed on landing at Alert, while carrying a load of aviation fuel. The four crew members survived the crash, however the aircraft was completely destroyed. The wreckage was pushed to the south side of the runway, where it remains today. Because of the high visibility of the wreckage due to its location at the runway, it is often mistaken for the RCAF Lancaster.
On October 30, 1991, a Lockheed C-130 Hercules, part of Operation Boxtop, crashed about 20 km (12 mi) from the airfield, killing 4 of the 18 passengers and crew on impact, while pilot John Couch died of exposure following the crash. Couch was conducting a visual approach and descended into a hill due to a mistake regarding the plane's true location. Subsequent rescue efforts by personnel from CFS Alert, USAF personnel from Thule Air Base 700 km (430 mi) south, and 435 Transport and Rescue Squadron from CFB Winnipeg and 440 Transport and Rescue Squadron, from CFB Namao outside Edmonton, both squadrons are part of 17 Wing Winnipeg, and 424 Squadron from CFB Trenton, Ontario, 413 Transport and Rescue Squadron from CFB Greenwood, Nova Scotia were hampered by a blizzard and local terrain. The crash investigation recommended all C-130s be retrofitted with ground proximity detectors. The crash and rescue efforts were the basis of a film called Ordeal in the Arctic (1993).
Alert has a polar climate (ET) as it is cold most of the year and is snow-covered for about 10 months of the year. The warmest month, July, has an average temperature of just 3.4 °C (38.1 °F). Alert is very dry, the fourth driest in Nunavut, averaging only 158.3 mm (6.23 in) of precipitation per year. Most of the precipitation is snow and occurs during the months of July, August and September. On average there is 17.4 mm (0.69 in) of rain, the least of any place in Nunavut, which occurs between June and September. Alert sees very little snowfall during the rest of the year. September is usually the month with the heaviest snowfall. February is the coldest month of the year and the yearly mean of −17.7 °C (0.1 °F) is the second coldest in Nunavut after Eureka. Snowfall can occur during any month of the year. Alert experiences polar night from the middle of October, with twilight lasting until the end of the month, until the end of February, with twilight starting about the middle of the month. From the first week of April until the first week of September Alert sees the midnight sun.
In early April 2006 the Roly McLenahan Torch that was used to light the flame at Whitehorse, Yukon for the Canada Winter Games passed through Alert. While the Canada Games torch was supposed to pass over the North Pole, bad weather prevented a Canadian military Twin Otter from making the trip. The torch did not travel outside Alert that weekend (April 9–12).
On November 8, 2009, the 2010 Winter Olympics torch relay arrived at Alert via airplane from Churchill, Manitoba, reaching its most northerly point on land. The next day it travelled to Iqaluit.