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Extremities of the Earth: The Northernmost Inhabited Point

Located in a shifting sea of ice, the North Pole sits at the center of the Arctic Ocean, the literal top of the world. The shifting of the ice makes it impossible to establish a permanent base at the pole, though drifting stations have been created through the decades that are manned for several weeks at a time. But situated only 508 miles from the North Pole, a military installation named Alert, located at the northeastern tip of Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, Canada, is the northernmost permanently inhabited place in the world!

Detail of North America. U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, 2007. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Detail of North America. U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, 2007. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Ellesmere Island, Canada’s northernmost island, was first inhabited by Paleo-Eskimo peoples perhaps as far back as 2000 BCE, and archaeological evidence points to visits from Viking seafarers in the 10th Century. The earliest documented exploration of the northernmost parts of the island was conducted by the British Arctic Expedition, led by Captain George Strong Nares from 1875 to 1876. The expedition included two ships, the Discovery and the Alert, from which the present-day site gets its name. The goal of the expedition was to reach the North Pole via Smith Sound, the sea passage between Greenland and Ellesmere Island, which can be seen in the map below. The map, produced by the Canadian government in 1904, shows the explorations of Northern Canada up to that point. The path of the HMS Alert is represented by the dotted red line along the western tip of Greenland. Seen more closely in the detail image, the red crosshatch marks the coastlines explored by the crew of the Alert, with the current location of the military base near where the crew remained for the winter. Other explorers passed through the area in the following decades, the most notable of whom was Robert Peary in 1902 as well as in 1909, when he claimed to be the first person to reach the North Pole (although this remains a much debated claim today).

Explorations in Northern Canada and Adjacent Portions of Greenland and Alaska. Department of the Interior Canada, 1904. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Explorations in Northern Canada and Adjacent Portions of Greenland and Alaska. Department of the Interior Canada, 1904. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Explorations in Northern Canada and Adjacent Portions of Greenland and Alaska [Red dotted line and shaded area is path and exploration of the HMS Alert]. Department of the Interior Canada, 1904. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Detail of Explorations in Northern Canada and Adjacent Portions of Greenland and Alaska. Department of the Interior Canada, 1904. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress. Red dotted line and red crosshatched areas represent the path and coastal exploration area, respectively, of the HMS Alert.

After World War II, Charles J. Hubbard of the United States Weather Bureau proposed the creation of a network of Arctic weather and research stations. Negotiations between the U.S. and Canada led to the establishment of five stations, of which Alert became the last to be settled when the first twelve personnel arrived on April 9, 1950, the same year the sketch map below was created by the U.S. Weather Bureau. In 1970, American personnel left and the United States turned over full control of the station to the Canadian government. The base now hosts a military signals intelligence radio receiving facility, an Environment Canada weather station, an atmosphere monitoring observatory, and the Alert Airport.

Alert, North Ellesmere Island. U.S. Weather Bureau, 1950. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Alert, North Ellesmere Island. U.S. Weather Bureau, 1950. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Calling themselves the “Frozen Chosen,” the population of Alert varies between about 65 and 150 people, as the inhabitants are constantly rotating in and out of the site. Despite this fluctuation, Alert has been permanently inhabited since the creation of the station. The weather station at Eureka, also on Ellesmere Island, is the next closest outpost of humanity, about 300 miles away. The position of the base in relation to the rest of the Arctic can really be seen in perspective with the map below, created in 1925 by the U.S. Hydrographic Office.

The Arctic Regions. U.S. Hydrographic Office, 1925. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

The Arctic Regions. U.S. Hydrographic Office, 1925. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Due to its extreme latitude, four months out of the year are spent in complete darkness, four months with the sun just peeking above the horizon, and four months of total sunlight. The warmest month is July, with an average temperature of 38 °F (3.4 °C) while February is the coldest month of the year, with an average temperature of -28 °F (-33 °C)! While many may wish to visit this inhospitable land, as it is a military installation, access to Alert is restricted and visitors must receive special permission to go there. For those wanting to visit the northernmost civilian-inhabited place on earth, stay tuned for Part II of this post!

One Comment

  1. Eric
    August 12, 2018 at 2:22 pm

    Was posted there from May to July of 1983 as part of the crew building the Habitation and Personal Services Bldg.

    Neat place to be. Was greeted with a whiteout on our first full day.

    The one memory that has always stuck with, was the site of a room full of burly grown men watching the movie Annie! Entertainment is entertainment when everything, including entertainment is flown-in from the south

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