Across Alaska 15 remote radars spin hours a day, 365 days a year. Since
the Cold War, they’ve monitored the airspace above Alaska and across much
of the Arctic. Even with decades of technological advances, the radars are
still the military’s primary way to monitor airspace over much of the
continent. But now, Alaska Public Media’s Zachariah Hughes reports, their
core mission is threatened by climate change.
It takes hours to get out to the military’s radar station at Tin
City….starting with a flight from Anchorage’s Joint Base
Elmendorf-Richardson in a small Air Force plane. 630 miles. And, the pilot
warns, no bathrooms.
In the early years of the 20th century, Tin City hosted a small mining
town. But since the 1950s, it’s been the site of a long range radar. It
used to take well over one hundred airmen to manage these sites. Over time,
though, automation and improved technology have whittled down the number of
personnel to just 4 private contractors.
After the flight, we take a quick drive to the building where the
technicians sleep, eat, and give the occasional visitors safety briefings.
Running these radar sites has never been easy, but now, it’s getting even
less manageable, as coastal erosion nibbles away the land around vital
infrastructure supporting the radar sites.
Colonel Daniel Lemon is the Air Force commander in charge of remote radar
sites stretching from the Pacific to the high Arctic.
For almost a decade, the Defense Department has acknowledged that a rapidly
warming climate poses a threat to the military’s installations and
operations around the globe, and they’ve initiated plans to cope with it.
So far, three radar stations, all of them in the North Slope, are grappling
with climate-driven threats to infrastructure. The installation at Tin
City is not immediately imperiled by this issue. Although, in mid-November
during our visit, the Bering Strait just west of the site was completely
free of sea-ice.
Jeff Boulds, a mustachioed Montanan with graying hair gets ready to
take us from down here at the lower camp site, up a steep mountainside to
see the radar itself.
What comes next is a half-hour trip up snowy switchbacks that look like
they are about to drop away at every turn. Workers used to make this heroic
ascent via a long tram ride, but now the technicians use a treaded vehicle
called a PistenBully. It looks like a cross between a bulldozer and a tank.
During the Cold War, sites like this were precautionary monitoring stations
that could detect Soviet bombers. Tin City is particularly close to Russia,
with Big and Little Diomede islands in plain view, the International
date-line running invisibly between the two. Clouds block out the Russian
mainland. The radar building is covered with ice.
Inside, the radar building, most of the equipment is classified, and looks
like the kinds of metal filing cabinets and fluorescent lighting you’d find
in an accountant’s basement
Although Boulds is the one showing us around, he’s not in charge of
the radar equipment itself. Instead, he maintains the sites’ facilities.
Everything at Tin City — the runway for the plane to the cafeteria that
keeps Boulds fed — it all exists so this machine can keep spinning. The
long range radars are basically eyeballs, monitoring the skies over the
Bering Sea and Arctic ocean for whatever flies through — be it military
craft or rogue commercial planes.
The signals picked up by radars like this feed information back to
installations at JBER and NORAD’s headquarters in Colorado. For the
military, maintaining sovereignty over U.S. airspace means being able to
know what’s moving through it. Even in the remote fringes of the continent.
A 2014 government report found that the installations are seeing erosion
that the Pentagon didn’t expect until the year 2040.
And The military is already spending big to slow down impacts from a
warming Arctic. Colonel Lemon says that at Cape Lisburne, near Point Hope,
waves from the encroaching Chukchi Sea were washing over the air strip.
Tens of millions of dollars to protect one runway at one site. That’s
on-top of the quarter billion dollars the Defense Department already has
budgeted for maintenance and improvement projects. [WEB: $254 million over
5 years. Those costs don’t fall solely on the Pentagon. Numerous federal
agencies use data collected by the radars. The Federal Aviation
Administration pays 41 percent of the costs required to maintain the
sites.] And it’s only the start. Lisburne was low-hanging fruit: a runway
right next to the ocean, with a quarry nearby to gather rocks for the
seawall. (Other) Northern sites will need boulders barged in, others will
have to figure out how to deal with thawing permafrost. And while the
military acknowledges the problem, there is no long-term strategy beyond
keeping the radars spinning.