Back to the future

Paul Sparkes
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Time will come when the Arctic will no longer challenges enterprising humans

When delegates to the winter sessions of the World Assembly met in Alert on Canada’s Ellesmere Island in 2059, one of the excursions arranged for them was a visit to the great fish ranch in Kane Basin. This body of water lies between Ellesmere and Greenland, in the region where the two great islands nearly kiss.

While this wasn’t the first such fish ranch in the world, it was one of the most efficient.

“It was created by the simple device of stretching electric wires across the northern and southern limits of the straits which separate Ellesmere and Greenland and electrically fencing in the fish.” Atomic-powered fish factories around the basin did the rest.

The year given in my top paragraph is correct. I have just been reading from an article published in 1959 by Ritchie Calder, and in it, he looks ahead a full century. His area of interest is the Canadian Arctic.

Calder (1906-1982) is described on Wikipedia as a Scottish socialist author, journalist and academic. He was the father of five remarkable children, including a writer, teacher, mathematician …  one of the family is well-known science writer Nigel Calder.

Ritchie  Calder’s 1959 piece of imaginative writing (published in the magazine “The Beaver,” a venture of The Hudson’s Bay Co.) is somewhat more than imagination unleashed. He seems to have done his research and writes in such a matter-of-fact way that his readers, especially some 50 years ago before things had advanced to the point they are even now, must surely have been convinced that much of what he prophesized for a century in the future, would quite likely come to pass.

We are now, of course, more than halfway to Calder’s point in the future. The article was meant to mesh with others on the Canadian north as this issue of The Beaver was themed to the Arctic.

Included for example, was a comprehensive word-and-photos piece on “a vanishing Canadian —  the Eskimo.”

his  was researched and written by Doug Wilkinson (1919-2008), filmmaker, writer, photographer who lived for a year with an Inuit family at Pond Inlet. While I have not read the whole magazine, the articles all seem equally well researched and composed. Some of the photos of Inuit people in their shelters of stretched hide are riveting.

For its part, Calder’s article on what the Arctic could become in the future gives the reader a feeling of confidence that what is today a cold and forbidding mass of salt water, ice and land, will not always be so.

The article is upbeat. But a reader today may well ask, “Well, I wonder if this will really be the case — or even close to it?” Today we would probably be inclined to push Calder’s predictions a further 50 years.

 When The World Council gathers in Alert (the trip from New Zealand to Ellesmere Island takes about one hour by passenger rocket) the premier of Ellesmere Province reminds delegates that they are within 400 miles of the North Pole — “where your retro-rockets started braking for the landing here.”

The premier also mentions that around a century ago, Alert was popularly called Santa Claus’s hometown because it was the most northerly inhabited place on Earth.”

 Today (2059), however, Alert is part of the northern provinces of Canada (as opposed to the southern ones, some of which formed the original Confederation).

A point of interest in 2059 is that the new and Northern provinces have lots of political clout, given their vast ore resources and the ease with which those ores are now extracted.

The clout of the North is such that Canada was prevailed upon to move its federal capital more northerly some years before.

The premier, addressing delegates in 2059, also reminded them that some 150 years prior, “Peary had started for the North Pole on his sea-ice journey from the neighbourhood of Alert.”

Calder identified another site the delegates might visit, this one rather ominous (he was writing 10 years before we actually made it to the moon).

“It was almost a hundred years ago” (meaning, perhaps about 1960) “the first ‘to-the-moon-and-back’ rocket expedition had returned here. (Delegates would be able to visit the crater for the annual wreath-laying service).”    

 A happier diversion for delegates was the Trans-Polar ferry. It was slow by the day’s standards, but it made for a leisurely trip from Alert to Siberia and back within the weekend.

The ferry travelled underwater where its lights enabled a dramatic show of scenery, especially when it moved among the undersea alps.

The ores referred to earlier were the main reason for development of the North — technology allowed for that — and technology also made the Arctic fully livable. There were greenhouses, indoor gardens, high-rise apartment cylinders connected with pedways. “Cars” buoyed on a cushion of air were capable of dramatic speed.

Energy for virtually everything was atomic.

Alert was proud of the fact that it was above ground (yet inhabitants in these Arctic Canadian cities were “immune from the elements”). If its foundations penetrated the permafrost they were immovable because of fully effective insulation which disallowed heat seepage into the frost which would cause stability problems.

Alert was proud, as noted, of its above-ground profile as it was to be compared with the capital of Antarctica, Amundsen City — “constructed entirely underground, beneath the 10,000 feet ice cap.”

The winning of wealth from the Arctic region, to paraphrase Calder, had made atomic reactors economic … and I guess vice-versa. “Geological scouts had gone ahead of  ground prospectors by helicopter. … Canadians created ‘industrial oases’ accessible only by air.” They sent, by air, the components of the reactors and the generators, as was once done for the DEW Line  which strung radar stations across the Arctic in the mid-19th century.

Calder seems to miss nothing:

“These atomic stations did not need the continuous supplies by pipeline or by rail, which oil or coal installations would have needed; once constructed and ‘critical,’ the reactor fuel could be replenished by air so occasionally that the stations were virtually self-sufficient.”

Canadians of the future (a future which is now only 46 years away) had also introduced man-made sunlight to the Arctic, Calder reported.  

Rockets had been fired into space where they released sodium.

“The effect, on a celestial scale, is like that of the sodium lamps which once illuminated highways because the ionizing radiations, passing through the suspended and finely dispersed sodium gas, have filled the vacuum of the sky with a bright yellow light” — visible all over the Northern Hemisphere.


• • •


Kane’s name remembered

Reference to the Kane Basin brings to mind a column I wrote in 2009 on Dr. Elisha Kent Kane.

In company with 17 other men, he had sailed from New York in May of 1853 aboard the ship Advance. He was heading north and his mission was to find Sir John Franklin.

In St. John’s for barely two days,  Kane was to write in his journal, “the Governor, Mr. Hamilton, received us with a hearty English welcome and all the officials, indeed, all the inhabitants vied with each other in efforts to advance our views. After two days we left this thriving and hospitable city, and with a noble team of Newfoundland dogs on board, headed our brig to the coast of Greenland.”

As we know, his mission was not successful, but his huge effort is remembered in the naming of that body of water between Ellesmere and Greenland.


• • •


Mastering our environment

In the 1964 book, “The Unbelievable Land,” published jointly by the Department of Northern Affairs and National Resources and the Northern Service of the CBC, Jack Hildes (associate professor of physiology, University of Manitoba) wrote, “Research work is still going on, but certain things are now quite clear.

There is no doubt that survival of man in the Arctic is due to his mastery of the environment to provide himself with clothing, with heat and with shelter, and not because he is physiologically adapted to survive such extreme cold.”



Geographic location: Arctic

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