RESOLUTE BAY IONOSPHERE
Recollections BY LLOYD G. COPE
(rev L. 18 Oct. 2005)
The following is my recollection of spending more than a year at Canada's most northerly Ionosphere Station and will
endeavour to give the reader a feeling of what it is like to live and work in the Arctic, beyond the reaches of every-day
In the latter part of the war years when hope for peace was high, there was often conjecture among the radio operator fraternity about what the next job would be. Ever present were the thoughts that part of the future would lie in a posting to an Arctic station. This became a reality for many as the Department of Transport undertook a commitment on behalf of the Defence Research Board to build and operate new stations in the Arctic and southern Canada for the purpose of ionospheric research. The station at Clyde River was the first of the Arctic postings, followed by Fort Chimo, Baker Lake, Ottawa, Headingley, and Resolute. This is where my story begins.
At the time there were two air-strips, one on high ground with a gravel base and the other on the ice of a small lake . The former is where my plane landed. As usual, since flights were infrequent, several weather observers, and station staff were there to greet the arrivals. Don Bower the first OIC of the Ionosphere station welcomed me and started passing on advice about the settlement. From here in the Bombardier snow Van, the road led to a huge pile of snow a mile away and stopped at what Don said was the station.
This was my first inkling that ""Life in the Arctic"" is different. The station,152 feet in length was completely buried in the snow, with only a meagre tunnel to the front door. No doubt this is what happens when you site a station in the lee of a hill with almost constant snow drift from the north. Once in the station, the five man crew, Bower. Carmichael, Colpitts,Wharton, and cook Simpson, welcomed me and thus began 16 months of a most interesting employment period with DOT. Later in the year three new operators, George, Mckellar and Lutwick replaced departing men.
The word ""ionosphere"" is synonymous with this essay and later on an explanation will be made to differentiate between all the ""spheres"".
Immediately after the war in 1946, a small unit of the defence Department was formed to undertake
some research into the effect that the ionosphere had on long distance radio communications. Simply, this meant that as a
start, a few members of DND pooled their resources, gathered scientific help from the academic world and established a
place to work. (Presently the location of a horticultural preserve on the Experimental Farm near Dow's Lake) From here
the movement grew and almost immediately contact was made with the American communications experts who similarly
had an interest in the same subject and had Ionosphere transmitters already at work.The
'movement' grew and since the
Department of Transport had human resources and capital works in the form of stations, it was a natural assumption that
Radio Regulations Engineering with Wilbur Smith at the head would lead. Technician Jack Wyatt was the point man in all
of these Ionosphere activities, involving both construction and supply.
When the word ionosphere is used, it is frequently confused with other words containing the "sphere" ending.
To illustrate the location of this part of the global picture, where " atmosphere" represents the total space between ground and the stratosphere, the following indicate the approximate layers of each area. Troposphere 18 km, Stratosphere 50km, Ozone 90 km, Mesosphere and Ionosphere 350 km.
For purposes of this story, only the 350 km figure is important. The
clouds of electrically charged molecules in this area, termed the ionosphere, gather their energy from the sun
Changes occur daily and seasonally and the layers have been categorized as D layer up to 80 km, E layer up to 100 km, F1
and F2 up to 115 km. The F layers provide the necessary components for the skywave propagation of radio.
In the late forties as Canada was recovering from the war years, commerce was rapidly building and experts in many fields were establishing new endeavours. One of these was a company in Montreal, operated by the Jacobsen brothers, specializing in prefabricated buildings suitable for Arctic conditions.
Up to this point extremely little was written or known about suitable habitation for the north. European countries bordering the Arctic were well advanced in this type of construction. Canada followed suit and in September 1948, two American Icebreakers, the East Wind and the Wyandot arrived at Resolute with a prefrabicated ionosphere station built by Jacobsen and a year's inventory of miscellaneous supplies, all previously loaded at Boston.
Winter was on the doorstep and the construction crew began a rapid assembly of the prefab walls, partitions, roof and floor and within a week a building 152 feet long . became the ionsophere station.
There were five components of the hastily erected building, The first, the seven bedroom sleeping area with kitchen and living room as part of it, then an enclosed, unheated covered passage way. Next was the engine room with a 1000 gallon snow-melting tank at the rear.Finally, a food storage room attached to the Operations area of about 600 square feet.
Once the shell was completed, work on the interior began. Electrical wiring was a problem since the wire that arrived was a 6-foot spool of 2-inch under-water cable. The bedrooms had only a bed but no other furniture. This problem was addressed later by the next crew who built desks and cupboards.
Part of the design included an attached toilet next to the front door, with an oil drum serving as receptacle. Painting the building International orange in accordance with Arctic standards awaited summer snow-melt. The building was heated with oil-burning space heaters.
part of the complex was a small building, some 500 yards to the east termed the Field Intensity Building. Here a Brown
Recorder was set up to measure the field intensity of some Broadcast stations A second out-building, 500 yards uphill,
erected and operated by the Dominion Observatory, was built completely without nails and had no metallic fixtures as part
of its structure. This building had recorders measuring declination and inclination of the magnetic lines of force. The
location of this building is important to a story later in this piece.
Late in 1948, the ionosphere station started regular observations on a 24 hour basis. As had previously been planned, a new
American Ionosphere transmitter was flown in and put to work almost immediately. The transmitter termed C2 was the
latest machine capable of running automatically on a timed 24 hour basis, and every time it fired, a film based receiver
recorded the various levels of the charged "clouds" in the ionosphere above. The 35mm film taken out of the camera was
developed, levels of F1 and F2 noted and a message prepared for transmission to Ottawa, via a BC610 transmitter. This
could then be part of the documentation for forecast of coming international radio high frequency transmissions.
In the summer of 1950, Dr D. C. Rose of the Federal Research Council arrived with a new project. His work at the time was related to measuring the cosmic ray activity at Resolute Bay.
For this purpose
the equipment was almost minimal and consisted of a large wooden crate about five feet long and two feet wide. Inside a
large pile of lead bricks was piled, leaving space for the a geiger recorder in the middle. This project was continued into the
next year with no published results at the time.
The very heart of existence at this isolated station was the power plant, consisting of three 5KW Turner diesel motors with attached alternators. Turners have a good reputation, but unfortunately this did not prove to be the case at Resolute.
When the station was built, crib works of 6X6 timbers were imbedded in the perma frost to provide a solid base for the motors.. After a few months, the heat from the motors melted the perma-frost and the motors running in tandem vibrated the solid fuel lines apart. Diesel oil spewed all over the walls creating a highly incendiary risk . The eventual end to this tale occurred when the governor of the #1 diesel came apart and the machine gathered so much speed that the crankshaft broke. At this point, the cribs were reinforced and spare parts put the #1 back into service.
As part of the power plant, a 1000 gallon snow-melting tank had been installed at the time of building construction. The diesel exhausts were piped through the tank providing heat for the blocks of snow, thrown in through an open door. A water pressure system was attached to the tank and provided water for kitchen and wash-room. As an aside on this system, one of the residents calculated that it would require 15 gallons of melted snow per person to take care of daily needs.During the summer of 1948 arrangements were made with the weather station for weekly delivery of water.
The fuel oil needs of the station, were modest, in the neighbourhood of up to 4000 gallons per annum.
It should have been Diesel Fuel Arctic Grade. In 1950 this became a problem at extreme temperatures; since the diesel froze at -40F and could not be pumped using a wobble pump. As a matter of necessity, the barrels were split open and slushy diesel shovelled into containers for the two space heaters and the motors. The inventory of diesel eventually became buried under the snow drifts, creating problems in separating diesel from Aviation gasoline drums.
One of these problems was mixing diesel with Aviation gas for one of the space heaters. Within minutes the stove started
to get very warm and the stove pipes became red rather than black, Of course, investigation showed the error that had been
made, and steps were taken to prevent similar near misses.
One of the bounties of being posted to an Arctic station at the time of this story is that the staff usually included a cook.
Whether he knew it or not he had a lot to do with morale within the ranks. His choice of menu was perhaps limited and he
had to rely on canned goods as well as dehydrated potatoes, onions, cabbage and turnips. While there may be some fresh
vegetables shipped at time of resupply, this was a poor option. Oranges, bananas and other fresh fruit and vegetables were
non-existent, except occasionally when a new person arrived by air, with some in his suitcase..
One of the assignments for the ionosphere station was to observe the aurora, usually called northern lights. Despite many hours of looking during my tenure the brilliantly lit sky was never seen by the observers. The expert advice was that Cornwallis was too far north, and that the aurora occurred generally from the north magnetic pole southward to the equator. The north magnetic pole was a considerable distance south of Resolute
Topography of Cornwallis
Cornwallis has been locked in a perma-frost zone for eons of time and the top three inches of shale and soil melt every summer and refreeze usually starting in September,
There is very little grass and the only trees are stunted willow that try to grow along the ground. After snow disappears in July, the areas with some soil become alive with an abundance of Arctic flowers.
The terrain consists of hills, valleys and small pools and lakes. One hill close to the establishments at Resolute, is about 800 feet above sea-level, and on its top there are thousands of sea shells deposited when the island was under water..
Looking down to Resolute Bay from the hill, one can see the successive beaches. At one point in the millenium Cornwallis Island was part of a tropical forest and there is evidence of huge trees that grew at that time.. Many observers have picked up pieces of petrified wood from these trees and have seen logs and stumps.
In the middle of November the sun disappears below the horizon and the long night begins.At first the feeling , "what will we do now" wears off and routines are adjusted. Walking on bright moonlit days becomes a favourite pastime. and during these walks, it is mandatory to carry a rifle for fear of polar bears.
The season passes and about February 11th, the sun peaks above the horizon for a very short part of its arc. Almost without exception every employee based at the Resolute stations goes outside to witness the event.
The arrival of the sun in 1950 held no surprises, the temperature was minus 55 degrees Fahrenheit and smoke from the diesels and stoves went straight up in a slim column, belying the fact that the wind is usually present.
A narrow escape
Earlier I mentioned that snow sometimes completely covered the Ionosphere station, and as a short-cut the Magnetician John Galt habitually walked across the roof of the building to take his magnetometer noon readings.
During the winter of 1950, this was his undoing, and just after passing over the engine room, the snow behind the station collapsed under him and John landed at the bottom, 10 or more feet below in a pool of water. This of course was the exhaust pit for the two diesels.
John's presence of mind probably saved his life, simply by realizing he couldn't be heard above the roar of the
diesels. In his mind he developed a strategy to clamber up the vertical ice covered walls by gouging out the bank with his
hands and losing his gloves in the process. Although very wet and now with his clothes starting to freeze, he began to claw
at the snow covered walls . It took about half an hour to crawl out and return to the station where he collapsed.. He said that
he even remembered that diesel fumes have less carbon monoxide than similar gas emissions. Other than frozen fingers and
some shock, John was back at work the next day.
In the summer of 1950, Ottawa headquarters sent instructions to have a counterpoise erected at the Field Intensity building, consisting of twelve holes, four feet deep to take a dozen cedar posts.
At any place but Resolute this would have been
simple. Since humour was never lacking in the crew, digging started, at two or three inches a day as the perma-frost melted.
It melted downward and sideways at the same time and when four feet was reached, the first post hole was about eight feet
in diameter and the soil and shale taken out formed a frozen hillock a couple of feet high . The project was then abandoned,
waiting for the posts to arrive on summer re-supply.
A silent whiteness like an invisible blanket, with no ups or downs occurs periodically in the Arctic from May through August.
Because of the sun's oblique rays and the white carpet of snow it is very difficult to differentiate between vertical or horizontal surfaces. For instance it was hazardous to go in vehicles, where ups and downs were normally the case. In one instance the Bombardier was headed for what was thought to be down-hill but yet it was a vertical wall several hundred feet high. Making a hole in the snow, (shoe size) the interior would be pale blue.
Smithsonian Institute Research
In the summer of 1949 Dr Collins of the Smithsonian arrived with a helper to search out the story that in the migration of the Thule eskimo from Siberia across North America to Greenland, they lived at Resolute Bay.
He was not long in finding convincing evidence that this was the case.
On a plateau on the very edge of Resolute Bay, he found buried remnants of what had been a small village. Whale bones were used as part of a structure, and many animal bones from their diet were unearthed. The prize was unearthing a household storage area and a sizable quantity of frozen whale baleen, estimated to be 1000 years old and still edible.
There were no graves, but on a neighbouring hillside there were several rock
constructions above ground and in many were partial human skeletons.
Animals had disrupted some of the stone burial places to get at the contents.
Polar bears and wildlife
In the first year of operation of the neighbouring weather station Ted Gibbon was mauled by a polar bear as he went from one building to the next.
From that time on this served as a warning for all personel who were residents at Resolute. It became standard practice to be armed when away from the camp, or doing outside chores. Bears were often seen on the Bay ice, searching out garbage and even seals.
Such a sight was reported by George Simpson of the ionosphere station and two of the staff took after it in the Bombardier , among the many ice ""growlers"" in the bay. At Resolute there was considerable wild life with wolves, foxes and rabbits ever present. Migratory birds were in great numbers with the ptarmigan holding sway as winter residents.
This subject was mentioned briefly in connection with the Engine room.
After station start-up in the fall of 1948, it was the daily practice to cut snow blocks at the back of the station, and throw them through a trap door into the 1000 gallon tank to be melted. This was a good and the zinc strips laid in the tank discouraged rusting.
When snow ran out in 1950, help was sought from the weather station, and fresh water was delivered with a tractor and portable tank.
During this period there was opportunity to clean the tank, so with brush and cleaning solvents, scrubbing began. As the tank was cleaned to the bottom, numerous dog droppings were evident on the bottom - no doubt from the huskies who loved basking in the lee of the station.Ugh.
As part of the Arctic weather station group, in addition to Resolute, four more stations to the north, completed the observation of Arctic weather activities. Resupply of these stations, in addition to possible ice-breaker visits was carried out by an annual spring air-lift, stopping at Resolute.
This was usually without incident with a few exceptions. Three American planes, a C47, C54 and C82 crashed on take-off and a Canadian North Star, broke in half on landing. To provide a theatre for Resolute workers, the fuselages of the C49 and C54 were joined end to end and a doorway made in the middle. This was the C- 101 theatre.
In 1950, construction began on a large RCAF hangar and air base on the existing landing strip, as well as some work on the road connecting this base with the beach facilities of the weather station.
On one of the day trips from RCAF to the beach, one of the laborers who was riding in the back of a
4X4 fell out and was killed. His body was placed in an unused hut, and the RCMP officer at the
time, Ken Preece convened an inquest. I was appointed head of a three-man group to report on the death, and after viewing
the remains, and airing all the facts the group ruled that death of the worker was by misadventure.
After the ship's resupply in 1950, two new construction projects got under way at the Ionosphere station. A garage was built to house the Bombardier, and a power cable was laid to the Air Force huge generators. Donald McCartney (now deceased) laid the cable and spent many days splicing the several lengths in the bitter cold of the tundra.
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