Innovation Magazine July-August 2019
F E A T U R E
This scanned page from a 1987 Department of
National Defense report indicates how the Canadian Government was worried about the number (264, by their count) and location of Soviet submarines in the Arctic.
I t’s April 16, 1992, approximately 360 nautical miles from the North Pole. The temperature is –30 o C. A helicopter drops two men and a pile of equipment onto the wind- swept, utterly deserted ice pack. Their mission: to drill a small hole through the six-metre-thick ice, lower an acoustic transponder deep into the icy water, and begin testing a system that would allow Canadian and US forces to monitor unfriendly submarine traffic under the Arctic. It could be a scene from a Tom Cruise movie, or maybe a best-selling spy thriller. Instead, it’s just one slice from a true story of made-in-BC engineering genius.
In 1987, when the Cold War was still in full swing, the Department of National Defence (DND) began looking for a way to monitor possible Soviet submarine activity in Canada’s Arctic waters. Working in partnership with the US military, which also had a vested interest in tracking any Soviet subs potentially making their way to the North Atlantic, DND decided to place a prototype acoustic listening post on the edge of the continental shelf, some 500-metres deep under a permanent, thick, ever-moving ice pack north of Ellesmere Island, Canada’s northernmost point of land. Then they had to figure out how to communicate with it: it would take
nearly 200 kilometres of fibre-optic communications cable to connect listeners at Canadian Forces Station Alert, on the very tip of Ellesmere Island, to the acoustic array. “No one had ever done it before,” says Bruce Butler, P.Eng. “You couldn’t just drill a series of holes in the ice pack and feed the cable from one hole to the next, because of the distance involved and the fact that the ice shifts all the time, or use an icebreaker—Canada didn’t have one that could get through ice that could be as much as 10 metres thick.” Fortunately, however, DND scientists involved with the mission— code-named Project Spinnaker and ostensibly devoted only to collecting
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