Field Notes: Recollections of an observer at Eureka in the IGY

John Gilbert

Director-General, (ret’d)
Government Telecommunications Agency, Department of Communications (Canada)

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The International Geophysical Year (IGY) lasted from July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958 and was the third in a series known earlier as International Polar Years (1882–1883 and 1932–1933).  The IGY program, encompassing eleven earth sciences, was of particular relevance to the High Arctic, an area susceptible to ionospheric disturbances, since the IGY covered the peak of solar cycle 19.  The earth sciences were: aurora and airglow, cosmic rays, geomagnetism, gravity, ionospheric physics, longitude and latitude determinations (precision mapping), meteorology, oceanography, seismology, and solar activity.

Most of the instruments used for observations during the IGY are no longer in use having been replaced by modern computer-based methods.  Many examples of these instruments are held in the collections of the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation.  The results, and analyses, of the observations carried out during the IGY are part of the historical record and are available for research on the Internet.  However, there is little historical information on the experiences of observers in the field.  This article describes the recollections of one observer, John Gilbert, at Eureka, NU during the “Year”.

Fig. 1:  “Eureka 1957”

Fig. 1:  Eureka 1957

A program of scientific observations was run at Eureka during the IGY. Eureka, NWT, was then a small weather station on Ellesmere Island.  It is now home to the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL is operated by CANDAC). Established as Eureka Sound in 1947, the weather station had carried out upper air and surface weather observations for a decade before the IGY.  Several additional observations, including ionosphere soundings, were added to the station activities for the duration of the “Year”.

In 1957, the staff at Eureka comprised four meteorological technicians (Met Techs), two radio operators (ROs), 1 a mechanic and a cook.  Four members of the staff were provided by the Meteorological Branch of the Department of Transport and four from the United States Weather Bureau.  The senior Canadian was the Officer in Charge of the station while the senior American was the Executive Officer.  Over the previous decade duties at the station had been assigned around a core set of responsibilities for each specialist.  The mechanic and cook were occupied full time, with the cook having Sunday off and the rest of the station taking it in turns to preparethe Sunday dinner– a practice known as “Chicken on Saturday, feathers on Sunday”.  The mechanic kept the snowmobile, Weasel 2 and other equipment in operating order and, most importantly, the 18KW generators which powered everything at the station.  The main purpose of the station was the upper air or radiosonde program.  Two “flights” a day kept the Met Techs busy for several hours each day.  They assisted the mechanic with chores such as plowing snow off the runway, clearing the garbage, gathering water from icebergs in the Fiord, unloading the infrequent aircraft and a host of other tasks to keep the station running.

The two radio operators maintained fixed schedules where they would send and receive data and messages in Morse code, or “cw” 3, with the control station in Resolute Bay.  Resolute would call each of the stations in turn, and woe betide the operator who was not ready when his turn came.  As the only link with the outside world, the ROs monitored the radios, particularly during the spring and fall airlift when aircraft flew into the station carrying supplies.  An icebreaker visited the station, ice conditions permitting, during a few hectic days in late summer.  The ROs had been trained in weather observing following well established procedures laid down in the “Manual of Standard Procedures and Practices for Weather Observing and Reporting” (MANOBS).  This 300-page document was used across Canada, and while the procedures were no different at Eureka than anywhere else, the extreme cold4 and extensive dark period introduced some interesting challenges not normally encountered in more southern stations.

Fig. 2:  “Filling the radiosonde balloon”

Fig. 2:  Filling the radiosonde balloon

Eureka was fundamentally a weather station and even during the IGY the meteorological program remained the core activity for the staff. One of the Americans, Cougar Dewey from Oklahoma, summed up the mandate succinctly in his comment “No matter what happens up here, if those balloons don’t go off, we are all out of business”.  While the RO was not directly involved in the radiosonde runs themselves, the transmission of the coded results were a major part of his radio schedules with Resolute Bay from where the combined results of the five high Arctic stations were sent onward to Edmonton to contribute to the international weather observing network.  In preparation for the IGY several changes had been introduced at Eureka.  The shelter where the radiosonde balloons were filled had been redesigned and enlarged to allow the use of larger balloons in higher winds.  Larger balloons would obtain data at greater heights.  The net result of these changes was a major increase in the length of the radiosonde reports and there were many occasions when the Met Tech would still be coding the results of the “run” while the RO would be asking the Resolute radio operator to delay his place in the queue.  There were occasions when the Met Tech would deliver the reports to the RO at the last second, reminiscent of a reporter filing a scoop seconds before the newspaper presses ran.

Fig. 3:  “Radiosonde building Eureka 1957”

Fig. 3:  Radiosonde building Eureka 1957

Fig. 4:  “Plotting the radiosonde”

Fig. 4:  Plotting the radiosonde

A further pressure on the transmission of the radiosonde results was the competition between stations to achieve long runs.  As the balloon went higher it would, of course, expand until, the size of a small house, it would burst.  The Met Techs experimented with treating the balloon in various ways, such as soaking it in fuel oil, to extend the run.  These efforts were quite successful and were later introduced into the American radiosonde programs in the Antarctic.  They had the immediate effect of making the report longer and further increasing the excitement of meeting the deadline for “filing” the report with Resolute Bay.

An additional complicating factor was the phenomena of radio “blackouts”.  These could last up to three days during which time the only signals heard at Eureka were those of the Russian “UPOL” Ice Islands in the Arctic Ocean – Eureka’s closest neighbours.  Once the blackout lifted, the backlog of observations had to be sent to Resolute, resulting in many hours at the Morse key.  The combination of these factors meant that the RO spent significant time in support of the core station radiosonde program.  It also meant he spent most of his 12-hour shift close to the radio equipment, housed in the Operations Building.  Over many years it had become clear that only relatively short-term tasks could be carried out by the RO without impeding his scheduled communications with Resolute Bay.  Two of his core duties were the synoptic and surface weather observations and, in partnership with a Met Tech, the Pilot Balloon (PIBAL) runs.  The results of these observations were also sent on to Resolute Bay at fixed scheduled times.

Fig. 5:  “Ready to release the PIBAL”

Fig. 5:  Ready to release the PIBAL

Eight daily synoptic weather observations, taken at 3-hourly intervals, were observed by the RO along with hourly observations during the rare occasions when aircraft were around.  While the MANOBS procedures laid down the rules for observations, special measures were required to ensure accuracy of observations in the extreme cold.  The Cotton Region screen, or instrument shelter, which protected the thermometers from the Sun and precipitation, housed the psychrometer (left) with dry and wet bulb thermometers and a fan to ventilate it, mercury-thallium thermometer (centre) and maximum and minimum thermometers (right).

Fig. 6:  “Plotting the PIBAL”

Fig. 6:  Plotting the PIBAL

Thermometers were to be kept free of frost, and readings were to be taken as quickly as possible.  The observer was expected to hold his breath while taking the readings. Below -39 degrees F, the freezing point of mercury, alcohol or mercury-thallium thermometers were used and the maximum temperature obtained from the thermograph chart.  The RO maintained other chart instruments such as the barograph (recording barometer) and the hygrometer which measured the water content in the office atmosphere.  An anemograph, recording wind speed and direction, was connected to an anemometer located on the roof of the operations building.  For cross checking data and replacement purposes there was a duplicate Stevenson screen and more than one barograph and other chart instruments.

Observations of visibility depended in large measure on natural markers as there were only a few lights on buildings around the station.  On days of unlimited visibility the Sawtooth Mountains, some 40 miles away, made a good marker while Blacktop Ridge, the iconic feature of Eureka, was often visible even in moonlight. MANOBS specified that visibility should not be reduced by darkness alone, but the lack of man-made lighting made it impossible to see physical features in periods of total darkness.5

Fig. 7:  “The Stevenson screen”

Fig. 7:  The Cotton Region screen (American version of the Stevenson screen”

Observations of cloud types and their heights are an important part of the meteorological story as clouds form differently in the High Arctic than in the south. Cirrus-type clouds, for example, form at much lower altitudes than in more temperate zones.  As long as Blacktop Ridge was visible one had an excellent 3050 foot cloud height marker.  To assist in measuring the height of clouds a ceiling projector, located on the road leading to the airstrip, could be turned on by a switch on the Operations Building.  The ceiling projector shone a vertical light on the base of the cloud.  The observer sighted the illuminated spot with an alidade, fixed at a measured distance, and read off the height of the cloud from a scale.  The ceiling projector had two elements: low power to keep the face plate clear of snow and frost and high power to project the beam on a cloud base.  Changing the bulbs in the ceiling projector was a cold job, particularly as heavy blowing snow would often obscure the face plate and it would have to be cleaned manually.

Ice thickness at Eureka by spring was, at that time, between 11 to 13 feet thick.  Traditionally the ice depth, and the temperature at different depths, had been observed by dynamiting a hole and taking a measurement just before the sea flooded the hole.  By 1957 new methods were employed.  Ice depth measurements were then taken by a Met Tech using an auger.  In certain conditions of cold and humidity the auger would become frozen in the ice, leading to a frustrating task of chipping out the tool.  The observer soon learned the knack of drilling just enough and then raising the auger quickly before it froze.  An instrument known as a telethermoscope, operated by the RO and a Met Tech, was used to measure the temperature of the ice at various depths.  The telethermoscope was powered by batteries connected by small screw connections- impossible to connect using heavy Arctic mitts.  Fingers froze quickly at temperatures often below minus 50 degrees F.

Fig. 8:  “At the telethermoscope”

Fig. 8:  At the telethermoscope

Another observation carried out jointly by the RO and Met Tech was the Pilot Balloon Observation (PIBAL).  A small balloon, fitted with a disposable battery operated lamp, was released to rise at a constant rate, and followed by a theodolite until lost (in the dark period it was often mistaken for a star).  The theodolite, housed in an unheated dome, was manned by one observer while the other had the warmer job of recording the minutely elevation and azimuth readings sent to him via an intercom.

Eureka Sound station, in 1948, had experienced a serious fire which destroyed much of the station.  Wind had spread the fire between buildings.  Since that tragedy, the duty radio operator was obliged to carry out a fire watch, checking every building when winds exceeded a certain speed.  Visibility in blowing snow was often zero.  To avoid getting lost in the storm one had to rely on the two station dogs to show the way back to base.  Unlike Resolute Bay, where the snow drifts would cover the buildings and ropes were needed to follow the path from building to building, the replacement buildings at Eureka had been positioned so that snow drifted around individual buildings, but seldom between them – so ropes were not used.

An addition to the station program for the IGY was equipment to measure information about the ionosphere, installed by the Defence Research Board but operated by Eureka staff.  A transmitter swept through the radio-communications spectrum every 15 minutes followed by the harmonics of the prime frequency.  For a few minutes these signals would wipe out all radio reception at the station causing frequent delays in communications with Resolute Bay.

Fig. 9:  “At the Ionospheric Sounder”

Fig. 9:  At the Ionospheric Sounder

In preparation for the IGY the station received a package of forms to record the aurora.  These were initially ignored as there was no record of aurora sightings in previous years.  But on a bitter cold day as Gilbert went out to take the weather observations, he saw a wonderful display of aurora to the south.  This was fully documented but there were no further sightings. Two additional instruments deserve mention.  A pyrheliometer, and strip chart pyranometer recorder, for measuring the intensity of direct solar radiation, was installed late in 1958, after John Gilbert had left.  It is believed that later still a Precision Spectral Pyranometer (radiometer) was installed, for more sophisticated measurement of solar and sky radiation.

There is mention in the station records of tidal observations but none of the surviving station staff can recall these being taken during the IGY.6  During the IGY station staff members were encouraged to report unusual phenomena outside of the formal observational program.  Gilbert recalls reporting a “green flash” which was observed at sunrise and a peculiar shaped cumulonimbus, unusual at that latitude.

Fig. 10:  “An unusual  cloud for the High Arctic”

Fig. 10:  An unusual cloud for the High Arctic

Eureka was pristine and beautiful, despite the cold.  There was always wildlife in the region, although, with the 18KW generator running continuously, the howling of wolves was not always audible. Bears and wolves were considered dangerous – a radio operator had been attacked by a polar bear at Resolute Bay in 1947.  Animals included polar bear, wolves, muskox, caribou, white foxes, Arctic hare and lemmings along with a profusion of bird life.  Arctic owls and falcon were attracted to the station and would perch on the radio antenna masts.

A walk from the stations would inevitably be rewarded by the sight of muskoxen, foxes and Arctic hare.  The station dogs warned of wolves and there was only one marauding bear in the two years John Gilbert was at the station.  Station staff was discouraged from using the jeep or snowmobile for “joyriding”, but walking was popular.  A favourite one-time destination was a Jamesway hut at Eastwind Lake, six miles north-northeast of Blacktop Ridge.  Set up as an emergency refuge after the disastrous 1948 fire the hut was a great destination for those who wanted to experience the silence and beauty of one of Canada’s still lightly explored areas.7

Fig. 11: “Eastwind Lake against Blacktop Ridge”

Fig. 11:  Eastwind Lake against Blacktop Ridge

The IGY represented a turning point for the Eureka Weather Station. Prior to the IGY it had been extremely isolated for a decade. The IGY solidified the importance of its observational program and, with improved radio communications and more frequent flights, the station became an important contributor to science in Canada.


  1.  The radio operators were trained at Malton, Airport, Toronto while upper air observers were trained on Toronto Island.
  2.  A WW II tracked vehicle designed by NRCC engineer George Kingston and subsequently made by Studebaker.
  3.  The universal abbreviation for “continuous wave” but seldom written out in full.
  4.  Eureka often reports the coldest temperatures in North America.
  5.  Eureka experiences a long dark period.  The Sun sets on October 22 and rises on February 21.  However, there are long periods of dusk, dawn and moonlight.
  6.  Station records for an earlier period show the highest tidal range at Eureka to be approximately 1 foot.
  7.  Sadly, the Eastwind Lake Hut was destroyed by fire in 1959.