Cold Warning: The Abandoned Radar Stations of the Arctic Circle

(Image: US Army Corps of Engineers, public domain)

Proximity to the Soviet Union and vast expanses of chilly, remote wilderness made Alaska, Canada and Greenland ideal locations for Cold War early warning radar stations, helping the West stay one step ahead of a potential Red Army invasion.  But outdated technology and changing global threats have left many facilities – including the White Alice Communications System and Distant Early Warning Line – abandoned in an isolated and inhospitable region. Largely off-limits to urban explorers, their unmistakable remains are a chilling historical reminder of the high stakes tug-of-war between the superpowers of the day.

White Alice Communication System (WACS)

(Images: Chris Lott, cc-3.0)

Conceived in the 1950s, WACS was a Cold War telecommunication link system that connected remote US Air Force sites across Alaska, including the DEW Line (see below), with command and control facilities.  Characterised by tropospheric scatter and line-of-sight microwave radio links, the structures featured large, parabolic scatter antennas.  White Alice also helped improve the local telephone network, but was rendered obsolete within 20 years due to the advent of satellite communications.

(Images: Chris Lott, cc-3.0)

After 1970 the US Air Force transferred control of WACS to RCS Alascom and it remained in civilian use until the end of the decade.  Since then, most physical remains have been removed as a result of major environmental concerns.  The station at Northeast Cape on St. Lawrence Island (top) was demolished in 2003.  Many of the original 31 sites have been cleared, while others like Anvil Mountain near Nome (above) appear to survive.

Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line

(Image: US Air Force, public domain)

Another innovation of the 1950s, the DEW Line was a network of radar stations stretching from the Arctic region of Canada and the Aleutian Islands of Alaska to Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands of Northern Europe. A joint project of the US and Canada, the DEW Line was rapidly constructed in response to the threat posed by Soviet bombers and became a cornerstone of the Colorado-based North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

(Images: US Air Force (top, bottom), public domain)

Like White Alice, the DEW Line sites generated a large amount of hazardous waste.  A $600 million clean-up operation was mounted upon deactivation, leading to some disagreement between Canada and the US over which country should foot the bill. Along with melting permafrost and depleted fish stocks, a dramatic decline in the local subsistence economy has been cited as an unintended consequences of the DEW Line.  The images above show radar stations at Barter Island, Oliktok Point and Point Lay.

(Image: Ian Mackensie, cc-3.0; Don Barrett, cc-nc-nd-3.0)

Several other former DEW Line radar stations survive in dereliction across the Arctic Circle, including Tuktoyaktuk (above) in the Northwest Territories of Canada.  Meanwhile, others haunt the icy outlands of Greenland and Iceland.

(Images: NaturaLite, cc-nc-nd-3.0; Struthious Bandersnatch, cc-sa-3.0)

The radar station known as DYE-2 (above) was one of two DEW Line facilities built in Greenland.  Without a doubt one of the best surviving relics of the former Cold War network, its remote location has kept vandalism to a minimum.  Leftover supplies and equipment, from food and drink to furniture and even a pool table, suggest DYE-2 was abandoned hastily.  While many White Alice and DEW Line stations have been torn-down, others transport us back in time to a Cold War-era when the threat of Soviet invasion seemed alarmingly real.

Keep reading – visit Russia’s Mothballed Leningradskaya Research Station, and explore 5 Isolated Settlements at the Ends of the Earth.


About the author: Tom





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