Review of Heidt and Lackenbauer, The Joint Arctic Weather Stations

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Daniel Heidt and P. Whitney Lackenbauer, The Joint Arctic Weather Stations: Science and Sovereignty in the High Arctic, 1946-1972. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2022. 584 pgs. ISBN 9781773852577.

Reviewed by Alina Bykova.

World War II led northern Western nations to realise the importance of the Arctic from both military-strategic and civic perspectives, and increased state interest in the region. In The Joint Arctic Weather Stations, P. Whitney Lackenbauer and Daniel Heidt trace the postwar development of meteorological research bases in the Canadian Arctic archipelago and examine the lifespan of the Joint Arctic Weather Stations (JAWS) program run by Canada and the United States. This subject lies at the intersection of numerous converging histories, including postwar Canadian and American diplomacy and sovereignty, Arctic science and environmental history, and Cold War politics and militarisation.  The authors provide a valuable ground-level view of the JAWS program which offers a detailed look at the daily operations of Western Arctic weather stations in the postwar period, and disputes claims that the United States had coerced Canada into the project. The book is an important addition to scientific historiography of the Arctic, a topic which is often overshadowed by political histories of the region. 

Military strength was not the only motivating factor in the establishment of the stations. While Cold War militarisation played a key role in the establishment of the stations, especially for the USA, there was also a need to fill a “major void” in the “meteorologically unexplored” Canadian north for civilian purposes (67). As a result, Canada and the United States cooperated to establish five weather monitoring stations in the Canadian High Arctic at Mould Bay, Resolute, Isachsen, Eureka, and Alert (all in the then-Northwest Territories). Forecasts based on readings taken at these stations “informed bomber and interceptor forces, civilians pilots who wanted to avoid harsh weather, farmers who needed to know when they should begin planting or harvesting their crops, and urban dwellers deciding whether to bring their umbrella to work” (2). 

The first chapter skillfully frames the development of meteorological science alongside Western incursions into the Arctic and describes the evolving process of state expansion into polar regions. The authors show that while prior expeditions into the north had collected weather data, 20th century initiatives, especially after WWII, to establish permanent research bases in the Arctic marked a sustained, long-term, state-funded effort to maintain a presence in the north. This shift prompted a departure from views of the Arctic as a place where people went to seek adventure and heroism (7). Chapter 2 focuses on US-Canadian diplomatic relations during efforts to kickstart the JAWS program by American policymakers and military personnel, and Canadian trepidation about allowing American-led installations to operate in its northern territories. Here, the authors focus primarily on state-level discussions to trace how the project changed and materialized based on Canadian efforts to secure its territory while also agreeing to participate in the joint program with the United States. 

Abandoned Isachsen Station, on Ellef Rignes Island, 2010. Photo courtesy of Derrick Midwinter.

The middle chapters of the book examine daily life and the realities of operating research stations in the Arctic, and how station staff interacted with the northern environment. The five stations usually housed crews of eight personnel (four Canadian and four American), along with occasional visitors. Chapters 3 and 4 focus on the early years of the stations (1947-1950) and the difficulties of building infrastructure in the High Arctic, including dealing with seasonal limitations associated with temperature,midnight sun or polar night conditions, and extreme weather that made the region inaccessible for part of the year. Chapter 5 examines who worked at the outposts and how they were recruited, while chapter 6 offers a detailed account of the scientific work that was carried out at the stations and the technological advancements that affected the way that personnel worked. Chapters 7 and 8 zero in on daily life at the bases and how the researchers got along while living together isolated in close quarters in the north. Contending with wildlife was an important part of operating the bases, as Canadian law forbade non-Inuit from hunting and killing many Arctic animals such as seals, walrus, and polar bears, though many animals posed a potential danger to station staff. “Station crews had to cope with local wildlife and interpersonal tensions with little hope of external supports” due to the remote nature of the bases, the authors state (325). Chapter 8 recounts a particularly harrowing encounter that one of the researchers, Frank Adams, had with a bear which wandered into the camp and was shot in self-defense when it came at Adams, which prompted an investigation by the RCMP (340). Station staff were strictly prohibited from hunting and were only allowed to kill wildlife in self-defense (294). 

Chapter 9 returns to the topic of tensions over Canadian sovereignty by examining coverage of the JAWS stations in Canadian media. The chapter addresses debates about the stations and why they were shut down in 1972, and includes an important section on the Canadian government’s 1950s program of forcibly resettling Inuit to the High Arctic as part of efforts to assert sovereignty in the region. Finally, the authors also dispute claims that the decision to close the bases was related to Canada’s disagreement with the United States over territorial rights to the Northwest Passage and Canadian pressure to get rid of the Americans, showing that in reality the project was considered overwhelmingly successful and was shuttered due to US Weather Bureau budget constraints. 

Remnants of American Air Force C-47 at Isachsen Station airstrip. Courtesy of Derrick Midwinter.

The Arctic as a place and environment is inextricable from the JAWS stations’ history, as it shaped the most basic aspects of the workers’ and scientists’ lives, from building the stations, venturing into the frigid and dark outdoors to collect data in the winter, avoiding run-ins with wildlife, to the very emotions of JAWS station residents, who were cooped up together in remote locations thousands of kilometers away from their loved ones. The station residents did not have access to Indigenous knowledge holders and had to adapt to unfamiliar Arctic conditions by learning through experience and observing their surroundings over time. The Arctic seasonal cycle shaped how the most basic tasks were performed, from waste disposal to water management, to resupplying the stations with provisions and hosting visitors. Most activities, including accessing the stations, relied on manageable weather conditions: “Wind, fog, the firmness of the permafrost, and the thickness of ice determined whether aircraft could land” (324). Station conditions also changed with the seasons, as summer “saw a flurry of activity” from visitors and maintenance personnel who came to research, clean, and update the stations, while winter was limited to the permanent station staff, who established routines to cope with months of cold and darkness. It was easy to get disoriented in the dark, and polar bears were known to “venture closer to stations during the winter,” so station personnel were discouraged from going for walks near the buildings or on the airstrip during the polar night. Those who went usually waited until there was a full moon, and made sure to carry a loaded rifle to fend off possible attacks from bears or wolves (324). These limitations significantly reduced winter activities and affected the staff’s mental health, but also fostered a “culture of self-reliance and improvisation,” as the personnel knew that the stations were largely inaccessible over a four-month period. The authors argue that the “spatiality” of the stations made learning the Arctic seasons key to the project’s success. 

While this book is not specifically written as an environmental history of the JAWS program, it illustrates the impact of the Arctic environment on state-led scientific development in the region. The ground-level view of the project, using testimonies from station personnel, is a valuable approach that makes a contribution to Arctic scholarship by highlighting the importance of spatiality and seasonal conditions in the region in the most practical sense – basic station operations. 

The Joint Arctic Weather Stations is well-researched, and uses a vast array of sources to trace development of the JAWS program and examine the issue from multiple angles. The authors use both Canadian and American government documents, archival media coverage, oral history testimony from JAWS staff, and unpublished memoirs to capture both top and bottom perspectives from government employees and diplomats to the men who actually worked at the stations. The result is a captivating story of the difficulties, as well as the benefits and successes, of jointly operating Canadian-American scientific research bases in the remote Arctic. The work weaves together high-level political history with close-up social history of the men who worked at the stations and the nature of daily life there that unfolds in the unique Arctic environment. The timeline of the stations’ development is thoroughly mapped and covers many aspects of operating research bases in the High North, as well as the political circumstances that span more than three decades between the 1940s and 1970s. This makes the scope of the work broad at times, but never confusing or unmanageable for readers, as the authors attempt to cover numerous aspects of meteorological science and research development in the context of the Canadian Arctic. 

The experience of the people running the stations rightly makes up the majority of the book, but there were themes in the introduction and conclusion that warranted expansion. Specifically, more might have been added on the concept of the research bases as scientific colonies and the tension between civilian data gathering as a vehicle for larger Arctic strategic and military goals. Nonetheless, The Joint Arctic Weather Stations is fascinating, well-organised, and highly readable, and is essential reading for anyone interested in the Canadian North and the development of postwar Arctic science and diplomacy.

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Alina is a PhD candidate in Russian and East European History at Stanford University. Her research interests include Arctic and Soviet environmental history with a focus on industry and extraction. Alina is writing her dissertation on the environmental and transnational history of extraction on Svalbard, Norway. She also works as a research associate and editor-in-chief at The Arctic Institute, an interdisciplinary think tank. Prior to her work in academia, she completed a Bachelor of Journalism at Toronto Metropolitan University and worked as a breaking news reporter at the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest newspaper.

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