It’s now October and throughout the northern hemisphere days are getting shorter, nights longer and the temperature is dropping. Consider then that as go you further north this happens in an ever more dramatic fashion. At the North Pole, the first and only sunset of the year happened on 21 September at the autumnal equinox. A scarce 1000 km south of that at 80 degrees north, there is still some daylight as the Sun reaches about 6 degrees above the horizon. That provides enough light to view the pristine environs of Ellesmere Island, around the Eureka Weather Station and the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL). The PEARL Site Manager and I made our first trip to Eureka in the Fall of 1994 and have repeated the long journey many, many times. Alexey Tikhomirov VE1RUS made his first visit to Eureka and PEARL in 2013, and has returned twice per year since.
Ellesmere is a large, mostly uninhabited island found just west of Greenland in the Canadian Arctic archipelago. It has one small community, Grise Fjord, at its southern tip, and two other notable locations, Eureka and Alert. Eureka is remote by any definition. It is accessible only by chartered aircraft and accommodation is limited and only available through the Eureka Weather Station by prior arrangement. It is an untamed landscape, that some might describe as bleak. It’s located on the northern shore of Slidre Fjord on the bank of Station Creek which is also the source of fresh water.
Looking out from there you see a hilly landscape devoid of trees, with a large ridge both to the east and west. Other than the weather station, humans have never established year round habitation this far north, although the Thule people did spend summers in the area. Remains of their camps are still visible many hundreds of years later. This part of the world does not give up its scars easily, it takes decades for vehicle tracks to fade away.
The vegetation consists of low willow shrubs and grasses and a surprising number of flowers in the summer time. By definition, this is an Arctic semi-desert with less than 30cm of precipitation per year. Many are surprised to hear that Eureka gets relatively little snow. However, as I like to say, “we see every snow flake that falls in the Arctic, and it’s usually going sideways!” Bad weather tends to take the form of high winds resulting in severe drifting in places. Winter time temperatures are typically well into the mid negative 40’s C January through into April, with -50C and lower always a possibility. At 80N, the Sun goes down for good on 20 October and is not seen again until 20 February. From mid April to mid September it is above the horizon for 24 hours a day. In addition to the Arctic weather, Eureka also is impacted by the Earth’s geomagnetic field. The geomagnetic pole is located something like 80 to 100 km east of Eureka, putting it pretty much dead centre in the auroral oval. This has the perhaps unexpected consequence that aurora are not usually visible from Eureka!
Both Eureka and Alert were established as part of the Joint Arctic Weather Stations (JAWS) through a partnership between Canada and the United States of America, in 1947 and 1950 respectively. In the early years, radio was the only means of communication and amateur radio was the means of handling personal communications between station personnel and their families in the south. John Gilbert, VE3CXL, among others served as radio operator arriving in 1956 for a two year stint. The story of those early years can be found in: “70th Anniversary of Amateur Radio at Eureka Part1: The original Station VE8MA” published in “The Canadian Amateur” the journal of the Radio Amateurs of Canada.
Consistent radio operations ended in Eureka sometime in the 1990s, and it was not until VE3KTB operated portable VY0 in 2014 that they resumed in a somewhat consistent fashion. In 2014 VE1RUS also operated as /VY0 and later met VE3CXL to talk about Eureka and the three agreed that it was time to re-establish amateur radio in Eureka in a more established fashion and so the Eureka Amateur Radio Club was formed with VE1RUS as the trustee of the station call, VY0ERC. The story of VY0ERC is described in “70th Anniversary of Amateur Radio at Eureka Part2: The VY0ERC Club Station” .
VY0ERC is currently located within the PEARL Ridge Laboratory (RidgeLab). PEARL is a comprehensive atmospheric observatory sampling various atmospheric parameters from the surface to over 100 km. It is operated by the Canadian Network for Detection of Atmospheric Change (CANDAC) a coalition of scientists from Canadian universities and government departments. PEARL has 3 facilities, the RidgeLab, the Zero Altitude PEARL Auxiliary Laboratory (0PAL) and the Surface Atmospheric Flux and Irradiance Extension (SAFIRE). Instruments located at the 3 PEARL sites include Fourier Transform Spectrometers to measure infrared radiance for determining trace gas amounts in the atmosphere, “Lidars” used to measure ozone and atmospheric particles, radars to measure cloud properties, air temperatures and air turbulence. There are also particle counters, UV spectrometers, a flux tower, and optical instruments that monitor the mesosphere. A more in depth description can be found at the CANDAC web-page, http://www.candac.ca. Being associated with a working and well equipped laboratory is very useful as many tools and supplies necessary for science tend also to be useful for amateur radio. Additionally, PEARL depends upon the most northerly situated geo-stationary satellite link for internet communications.
When VE1RUS and I are on-site, amateur radio activity at VY0ERC spans a wide range. HF SSB contacts can be made most days that the combination of time, weather, and propagation allow. Both are working on improving their CW and so we expect there to be more and more CW contacts. Digital modes, specifically RTTY and FT-8 are also both used. In February/March of 2018, the pair also put a number of grids on the air via FM satellite with contacts across the US and Europe via AO-91 and AO-92. This was made possible through a fund-raising campaign organized by Gabe AL6D and with the guidance of Patrick WD9EWK and encouragement of George MI6GTY. Gabe also offered the use of his TH-72 to make things easier.
One or both of VE1RUS and VE3KTB are on station for about 3-4 months of the year. Their operating schedule is driven mostly by the work schedule. It generally works out that the station is manned for many of the major contests such as CQWW SSB, CQWPX, ARRL DX, WAE RTTY, and usually one of either the IARU HF championship or the IOTA contest. Basically, any reason to get on and give out some contacts is considered a good reason! We are generally open for skeds if you drop us an email at [email protected]. Our non-contesting operating is always proceeded by a spot or two on the clusters.
The VY0ERC station consists of a TS-480HX, a Vectronix single 3-500Z amplifier (donated by Peter VE3AD) , a selection of antenna tuners and a wide range of antennas. The best band for contacts has generally been 20m, where a home-brew Aluminum tube Moxon rectangle is used, rotated by a HAM IV. A Cushcraft R5 vertical is also used on 20m-10m. It also makes for a good receive antenna on 40 and 80m! A variety of wire antennas have been installed and used with limited success on 40m and 80m. These include slopers, inverted V’s and flat-top dipoles, as well as a few other designs such as a full-size wire Moxon for 40m (not very successful) and a 40m half-square. The main challenge with these antennas is the lack of easily attainable height above ground. There are no usable structures other than the roof of the RidgeLab to use in supporting the wires. We hang the wires from a collection of PVC conduit strapped to the railings using bungee-cords. While very low-tech, this attachment method provides enough “give” in the system to allow the antennas to survive much longer than rigid systems in high-wind, heavy frosting and icing conditions. The weather has routinely destroyed each and every antenna put into service at the RidgeLab, despite our best efforts to remove them when we know there will be challenging conditions.
The inability to install low-band antennas at a sufficient height has led us to pursue a strategy of phased verticals for 40m and 80m. These verticals will either be telescoping, or mounted on tilting bases so that they can be quickly lowered –well quickly is relative in the cold of the High Arctic winter– when needed. As we all know, building an antenna farm is never inexpensive, but it is definitely rather more expensive when you factor in the transportation costs to the far north. In an effort to get a stronger signal on 40m and 80m, VY0ERC has initiated a campaign to raise funds to install a phase vertical array for both. You can read about it at www.gofundme.com/vy0erc-on-40-and-80m.
VE1RUS, VE3CXL, and VE3KTB invite any interested amateurs to join VY0ERC and participate in this Arctic Amateur Radio experience. Membership is free!