Archives

The 1983 North Pole expedition that wasn't just about science

A group of engineers paved the way, but a team of scientists would be living in a temporary camp on a floe at the top of the world in 1983 -- and they might meet the Soviets.

Scientists sought to learn about the Alpha Ridge beneath the Arctic Ocean

A crew begins the task of studying what lies beneath the polar ice cap in 1983. 2:06

The CBC reporter wasn't there yet. Neither was a CBC camera.

But when a team of engineers flew to the North Pole in March 1983 to build a temporary scientific base, they sent back the very first pictures for CBC viewers.

Drifting slowly on the Arctic ice cap, ice station Cesar, as the base was known, so far consisted on a couple of tents on an otherwise featureless plain surrounded by snow.

"A handful of humans are trying to carve an existence out of the ice," said reporter Terry Milewski in a voice-over.

Ice station Cesar 

Hans Weber was the team's chief scientist. He was also "doubling as a CBC cameraman." (The National/CBC Archives)

According to the Globe and Mail, the project's name of Cesar was short for Canadian Expedition to Study the Alpha Ridge.

To that end, about 50 engineers from CFB Petawawa were building an airstrip for a pending flight by a Hercules jet that would bring in all the necessary supplies.

"It's a challenge," said chief scientist Hans Weber, who was also charged with gathering pictures from the pole.

His advance party of four men was seen building windbreaks and what Milewski called an "igloo outhouse" out of snow. 

"The purpose of all this is to study the little-known Alpha Ridge ... on the floor of the Arctic Ocean," said the reporter. "It could turn out to be a mineral-rich extension of Canada's continental shelf."

If the Alpha Ridge belonged to Canada, the expedition might prove to be a worthwhile effort eventually.

"It might be extremely difficult to get at (mineral deposits) today, but it is important for future generations," said Jim Hutchison, deputy minister of mines, in a Globe and Mail story four days before this report aired.   

Scientific exchange

A Canadian effort to learn about what lies beneath Arctic ice has a parallel. 2:10

Almost two weeks later, on April 4, Milewski filed another report from the North Pole — and this time he was there in person.

The Soviets were in the neighbourhood too, and that meant the Canadians weren't the only ones pursuing scientific goals. There were some "Arctic politics" in the offing.

"Also interested is a permanent Russian station called NP-25," explained Milewski. 

Canadian-Soviet meetings at the North Pole weren't unprecedented; six years earlier, a Soviet station called NP-22 had drifted into Canadian Arctic territory.

"We have established some liaison with them," said MP Judy Erola, the Canadian minister of mines. "There's going to be an exchange of scientists very soon."

Meeting the neighbours? 

Journalist Jim Bittermann is seen giving Canadian flags to Soviet scientists on a previous Arctic meeting in 1977. (The National/CBC Archives)

The Soviets hadn't yet approved such a plan — but the Canadians could just "drop in" anyway, said Milewski.

"It may be just ice, but some of it is Canadian ice."

By June of 1984, the Globe and Mail reported that scientists had studied enough of the data they gathered to conclude that the Alpha Ridge was not an extension of the North American continent.