Blog: Radar returns to the Arctic, thrusting communities into geopolitical crosshairs

A chain of unstaffed radar sites, such as this one in Nunavut shown in a file photo, make up the Canada-U.S. North Warning System. (Canadian Armed Forces)

From Alaska to the Faroes, radar is making a comeback in the Arctic. The surveillance technology doesn’t just scan distant horizons: it upends local lands, too.

When scouting for a whale, an Inupiaq hunter leans over the edge of the ice and sticks his wooden paddle into the frigid Arctic waters, waiting to hear the low reverberations possibly signaling that a bowhead is near.

When scouting for a fighter jet, a soldier sits inside a radar station on the tundra and stares at a black and green screen, waiting to spot the flashes on the display possibly signaling that the enemy is near.

These are two different ways of sensing the environment. One is to locate the thing which might nourish a community. The other is to locate the thing which might destroy it. These sensations of life and death collide in Alaska, where, at the beginning of the Cold War, the US military established a radar station near an Inupiaq trapping site in Utqiagvik (Barrow). Their industrial hardware turned the soft, snowy, fur-lined tundra inside out.

One Inupiaq whaler, Joash Tukle, testified that when the military arrived in the middle of the dark, polar night in December 1954, “They had lights on the heavy equipment that were working on the point, on the sand. They keep bringing up the bodies of dead people.”

When radar came to Point Barrow

For over 1500 years, along the rocky promontories jutting out into the Arctic Ocean off the north coast of Alaska, Indigenous cultures have gathered and settled. They have leveraged these outcroppings of land to launch their skin boats, made of sealskin stitched together with threads made out of reindeer intestines, into the frigid but plentiful seas. In their kayaks and umiaks, Inupiat hunt for marine mammals like whales and ringed seals. The people of these “collector and storage based economies” keep the muscle and blubber borrowed from the ocean for consumption throughout the year in ice cellars: chilly, sometimes multi-chamber structures dug deep into the permafrost, which remain frozen year round – or at least they did, prior to climate change. A short ways inland from the coast, the Inupiaq set trapping lines to catch fur-bearing mammals, like Arctic foxes and hares, as they dart across the tundra.

A file photo of men hauling sections of whale skin and blubber, known as muktuk, near Utqiagvik, Alaska.(Gregory Bull/The Associated Press)

On that fateful day in December 1954, American contractors working on behalf of the U.S. Air Force showed up. The Inupiat settlements attracted them, much as they had whalers in the previous century. There were lots of people there, which meant local resources and knowledge. But unlike the American and European whalers, these white men from afar did not seek the bounties of the sea. They wanted to erect a radar station.

Radar, as you see, had been invented in World War II to spot enemy aircraft from afar. Radar works by emitting radio waves through the atmosphere. It bounces back off of objects, especially metallic ones, making it possible to detect aircraft, ships, or missiles. Radar can also tell if an object is moving. Due to the Doppler effect, if an object is approaching, the frequency of the radio waves it returns to the emitting instrument increases.

As the Soviet Union transformed from ally into enemy at the dawn of the Cold War, the U.S. and Canada sought to advance their northern vanguard as much as possible. Radar lines had already been built across the US-Canada border along the 49th parallel and along the 57th parallel at the Mid-Canada Line. Yet Washington, D.C. and Ottawa feared that enemy detections at these stations would not offer ample warning time to prepare an adequate counterattack. (Enormous flocks of migratory birds also caused so much interference along the Mid-Canada Line as to render it useless).

The Distant Early Warning Line arises

To improve their ability to spot Soviet incursions, the US and Canada decided to build the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line: a chain of 63 radar and communications stations running 3,000 miles from the top of Alaska across Canada to Greenland. The DEW Line radar station at Barrow was hastily built over the winter from 1954-1955. Some thirty years later, looking back on the upheaval, Tukle, the Inupiaq whaler quoted above, recalled in Inuktitut translated to English: “Before the DEW Line was in existence, we have used the place as a trapping site. The DEW Line site, traversing on CAT trains, had reached. And so had built an airport by the seaside, they placed their huts to store all their heavy equipment, their drilling rigs, their CAT train vehicles, their tools, by the ice cellars, downside of them, by my father’s ice cellar, whose name is Inualhluraq, the ice cellars of Nalikaq Eriqluk.”

Un des sites de la ligne DEW dans l'Arctique canadien (CBC)
A file photo of a DEW Line site in Arctic Canada. (CBC)

According to standard accounts, the DEW Line was simply erected on lands leased from the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory, established in 1947 on the site of an American oil camp. Little mention is made of the area’s Inupiaq history, let alone of the rich underground storehouses stocked with chunk upon chunk of cetacean and pinniped underlying the bulbous white radar station jutting up into the sky. The virtual DEWLine Museum, for instance, offers:

“The area along the DEW Line may be desolate, but it is steeped in the history of Arctic exploration. Some station sites had never been seen from the ground by white men before the DEW siting crews arrived. But at other locations the siting engineers had for company the spirits of some of history’s greatest explorers.”


No acknowledgement, of course, is given to the Inupiak bodies horrendously disinterred by CAT trains in Point Barrow.

The roar of planes and the songs of whales

As the military presence in Barrow, now known as Utqiagvik, built up, US C-46 planes came and went, landing on a “pierced-metal matting laid on the coarse beach gravel.” Scientists, contractors, and Air Force arrivistes were greeted by what one naval report described as “the utter silence of the Arctic.”

But the Arctic wasn’t silent to those who knew how to listen. Inupiaq recording artist Alexis Sallee explains:

When we’re out whaling, one of the things that was taught to me was that you put your paddle into the water and you can hear the bowhead whales, the beluga whales, you can hear the seals, the walruses and there are these neat, eloquent sounds that you could feel, like man, I don’t know what they’re saying but you could hear them communicating and they’re not only communicating to each other, but they’re communicating to us and a lot of those songs are a lot of high-pitch noises like Northern Lights sounds or something like that. There is a lot of bending and sliding, there is a lot of progressiveness to it.”


Inupiat listen to and through the sea for nearby reverberations and then silently signal to members when a whale is heard or sighted. From the 1950s-1980s, while they were practicing subsistence offshore, just a few miles inland, American contractors were sitting inside a windowless tower insulated from the surrounding environment. Under a big white ball, they scanned their screens year-round for Soviet bombers trying to sneak in across the northern horizon.

In Inuit mythology, the spirits of the departed lay underneath the land and sea in a place called Adlivun. In American military mythology, it is the enemy who may be lurking in a literal underworld, hiding in the “radar shadow” beneath the curvature of the earth.

When radar-watchers spotted the enemy, which would happen occasionally when the radar would detect Soviet bomber tracks, they would not only notify their fellow crew member, as an Inupiat whaler might. Instead, via high-wave scatter broadcast, they would alert someone they’d probably never encountered at a North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) installation thousands of miles away in Colorado Springs. As Richard Morenus described in 1957, “The DEW Line provided a “radar fix […that] fasten[ed] the electronic brains of the [fighter] interceptors” (in Cooper 2012: 35).

At those geopolitically critical moments, just a few miles away in an Inupiat home, someone might be stewing whale brains into pea soup, unaware of any Soviet threat. For whereas the Inupiat relied on technologies of proximity to intimately grasp their surroundings, the military relied on technologies of distance – or, more aptly, “distance-destroying technologies” – to surveil much vaster environs.

For “radicians” (radar technicians), hunting the enemy was ceaseless, sleepless, unrewarding work. Their labor bore little resemblance to whaling, which happens in a burst, in a season—and then, there is meat for months. The Inupiat celebrate the harvest from the sea each spring with Nalukataq, a multi-day celebration featuring feasting, singing, and dancing. A radician’s successful securing of his target would incur an electronic transmission of information, the scrambling of jets, and, if the worst came to pass, an explosive millisecond of death and destruction.

Building back radar

The 1980s: North Warning System

In the 1980s, many of the DEW line radar stations were severely obsolete. Their technology was helpless to detect the Soviet Union’s intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which it had invented in 1957. Though never actually launched, in theory, the missiles could be rocketed from bases nestled within the Soviet Union high into the atmosphere, thereby flying over the range of the DEW Line’s mechanically scanning radars en route to American and Canadian targets.

To modernize the North American line of atmospheric defense, the U.S. and Canada agreed to construct what was called the North Warning System. Several new stations were built, some were shuttered, and upgrades were made to others, which still occupied Indigenous lands. But now, having receded farther into the past, that multilayered history was even easier to bury.

And unlike the DEW Line, the new North Warning System stations were unmanned. There was no need for a contractor to sit for months on end, staring unblinkingly at a pulsating screen, until he was relieved of his duties.

The 2020s: Long-Range Discrimination Radar

Fast forward to the 21st century. Russia still poses a threat. But the US has its eyes turned towards new enemies on and over the horizon. The 2014 National Defense Authorization Act mandated the Missile Defense Agency to “deploy a long-range discriminating radar against long-range ballistic missile threats from the Democratic People’s
Republic of Korea. Such radar shall be located at a location optimized to support the defense of the homeland of the United States.”

Once again, that optical location to “defend the homeland” was identified as Alaska. In this case, the radar station was built not on coastal Inupiat lands, but rather in the interior. Sitting astride the rushing Nenana River, these lands were traditionally used by the Nenana-Toklat band of the Lower Tanana Athapaskans, who used to hunt moose and other animals when they passed through the area.

Since 1958, the forested area has been subjugated by the heavy, mechanical weight of the US military. Until 2020, the site was operated by the Air Force. But this past summer, its command was switched to the Space Force. Its old name, Clear Air Force Station, was swapped for a new one: Clear Space Force Station.

Last week, at the recently anointed Space Force station, the Missile Defense Agency held a ceremony to mark the completion of military construction on a five-story tower containing two 60-foot diameter radar array antennas. The radar, which is the outcome of a US$784 million contract awarded to Lockheed Martin, will be able to see all classes of missiles, from ballistic to hypersonic ones of the type China allegedly tested in October. The radar will also contribute to enhancing American all-domain awareness, including, of course, in space, “by monitoring satellites orbiting the earth, detecting, tracking, and identifying active or inactive satellites, spent rocket bodies, and fragmentation debris.”

Air Force Lieutenant General David Krumm, commander, Alaskan NORAD Region, Alaskan Command and 11th Air Force, stated, “Alaska is the most strategic place in the world. Our location allows us a field of view we believe we need, especially against ballistic missile defense.”

Yet that field of view is constantly changing. A few days ago, as the radar ceremony was taking place on the ground, the Missile Defense Agency released a bombastic video online. The video’s first moments quote the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, urging the deployment of a long-range discrimination radar to “defend the homeland.” But rather manipulatively, the video drops the Act’s mention of the DPRK. The decision to replace the Hermit Kingdom with an ellipsis is likely because it has lost its prime bogeyman status compared to, say, China or Russia. The video might therefore sound a bit outdated, if not altogether farcical, if it justified a new radar station on the basis of an enemy that has since retreated from view.

Meanwhile, in the Faroe Islands

Alaska is not the only NATO locale readying its radars. The Faroe Islands, an archipelago belonging to the Kingdom of Denmark located between Iceland and Scotland, has attracted the renewed attention of Washington, D.C., Copenhagen, and NATO. The only radar station on the islands, which was operated by the U.S. military under the guise of NATO, was closed in 2007. But now, given the renewed perception of threats emerging both in and via the Arctic, interest is high in installing new equipment at the old station atop Sornfelli, a tall mountain in the Faroes.

This past August, hundreds of Faroese turned out to protest the plans, which they say would violate their autonomy and right to self-determination. Some also worry that it could turn the islands of 48,000 people into a bomb target. Denmark is having none of it though: Last week, just days after the Long Range Discrimination Radar ceremony in Alaska, Danish Defense Minister Trine Bramsen was set to visit the Faroes to make a decision on the radar station. In the end, she had to self-isolate due to COVID exposure.

In the name of building “all-domain awareness” to protect the West from threats from every direction and dimension, northern lands are being ripped away from local control. But can it really be called “all-domain awareness” when the engineers, soldiers, and operatives who arrive fail to notice the murmur of snowdrifts, the buckling of ice, or the songs of whales?

Flying objects above the horizon

Along Alaska’s flat coastal plane, a radar station’s big white ball is often one of the few things sticking up above the horizon: a second moon refusing to set. But if you’re lucky, and you find yourself in an Inupiaq community in spring, you might see a person rising above the surface of the earth, too.

The name of the annual springtime whale harvest festival, Nalukataq, translates to “dancing in the air.” As part of the festivities, thirty or more “pullers” stretch a skin, typically that of a bearded seal, on top of which a “jumper” is bounced 20-40 feet high into the air. Folklore has it that “blanket-tossing” originates from a traditional practice of hoisting sharp-sighted hunters into the air with a skin blanket, “so that they could sight game, such as herds of caribou across the flat landscape, or whales entering the leads in the ice,” as Elizabeth Robinson writes.

This Indigenous atmospheric technology didn’t require any permanent lookout stations to be erected. Hunters could carry the skin blanket to wherever they thought prey might be nearby, whether on land or at sea. And once the moveable trampoline was no longer needed – when Inupiaq acquired other technologies for seeing and communicating at a distance, like binoculars and mobile phones, there was no hulking, toxic waste to clean up.

These days, whether using a skin blanket to boost their perspective, a wooden oar to amplify their undersea hearing, or GPS to navigate, Inupiat are having a hard time finding whales. The Missile Defense Agency, too, might never find any missiles, despite throwing nearly a billion dollars at a new radar. But whereas Inupiat can’t just imagine a whale into existence, the military readily conjures new enemies. This is all to say: which is really the group believing in spirits?

This post first appeared on Cryopolitics, an Arctic News and Analysis blog.


Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: New Canadian satellites to improve data collection across the North, CBC News

Norway: Radars on missile watch disturb TV signals in Norway’s north-easternmost town, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: New radars help Russia keep closer eye on the Arctic, The Independent Barents Observer

United States: Alaska’s Cold War radars face new threat from climate change, Alaska Public Media

Mia Bennett

Mia Bennett is an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and School of Modern Languages & Cultures (China Studies Programme) at the University of Hong Kong. Through fieldwork and remote sensing, she researches the politics of infrastructure development in frontier spaces, namely the Arctic and areas included within China's Belt and Road Initiative. Read Mia Bennett's articles

Do you want to report an error or a typo? Click here!

Leave a Reply

Note: By submitting your comments, you acknowledge that Radio Canada International has the right to reproduce, broadcast and publicize those comments or any part thereof in any manner whatsoever. Radio Canada International does not endorse any of the views posted. Your comments will be pre-moderated and published if they meet netiquette guidelines.
Netiquette »

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *