Exploring Northern Skies: The Churchill Research Range. (1)

By Taylor, C. J. | Manitoba History, Autumn-Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Exploring Northern Skies: The Churchill Research Range. (1)


Taylor, C. J., Manitoba History


A combination of geographical circumstances has given Churchill, Manitoba a long tradition of scientific research into geographical and geophysical subjects: its accessibility on Hudson Bay at the mouth of the Churchill River, and its proximity to Arctic regions and the magnetic pole. The establishment of Prince of Wales's Fort provided an ideal base for William Wales and Joseph Dymond to observe the transit of Venus across the sun in 1769. In the mid-20th century, these geographical circumstances plus the presence of a port facility, rail head and military base at Churchill encouraged the establishment of an upper atmosphere research facility. From 1956 until the mid 1980s, this was Canada's premier upper atmosphere research facility. It was connected with the developing space programs of the National Research Council and a number of Canadian universities. It played a central role in the development of Canadian rocketry, in particular the development of the Black Brant rocket. Moreover, the Churchill Research Range is associated with a period of great optimism for the development of Canada's north, forming part of a climate of optimism for northern research and Canada's role in the new frontier.

The Churchill Research Range was born out of an international endeavour in geophysical research called International Geophysical Year. IGY, in turn, developed out of a long history of scientific interest in the terrestrial and atmospheric properties of the polar regions. By the end of the 17th century it was known that the earth possessed a magnetic field organized around north and south magnetic poles. Besides being of obvious interest to navigators, it was also discovered that terrestrial magnetism was connected to weather patterns. Magnetism and the atmosphere were recognized as interacting in the phenomena associated with the polar regions known as the aurora borealis in the north and the aurora australis in the south. A comprehensive study of the geophysics of the polar regions was carried out during 1882-83 in an exercise called International Polar Year. Eleven countries established temporary stations at arctic and sub-arctic camps to take coordinated readings of the weather, atmospheric and magnetic phenomena. Bases were established in Canada by an American expedition on Ellesmere Island, a German team on Baffin Island, and a British group at Fort Rae on Great Slave Lake. IPY was a tremendous achievement in coordinated scientific endeavour and led to the discovery of a belt of intense auroral activity across the southern arctic, from Alaska to Hudson Bay. (2) Its success inspired a second cooperative venture to commemorate its 50th anniversary, Second International Polar Year, held in 1932-33. This time Canadian scientists participated and the Canadian Meteorological Service established arctic stations at Chesterfield Inlet and Advance on Ungava Bay in Quebec. IPY-2 was so successful that scientists began talking about repeating the venture, not in 50, but in 25 years. This suggestion was endorsed by the International Council of Scientific Unions although it was considered more expedient not to confine research to the polar regions. Accordingly, the 18 month period from July 1957 to December 1958 was designated International Geophysical Year. Over 30,000 scientists and observers from 70 countries participated. Midway through the program it was decided to continue into 1959 through another program termed International Geophysical Co-operation (IGC-59) although this 12 month extension is now considered as part of IGY. (3)

While IGY accumulated data in areas studied during first and second international polar years, it opened up new areas of geophysical research, namely the ocean and upper atmosphere. The earth's atmosphere is comprised of distinct layers, each with particular properties. The main component of the upper atmosphere is the outermost layer known as the ionosphere extending from about 90 to 320 kilometres above the surface of the earth. …

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