Military fails disaster response test

Stormy weather cut High Arctic sovereignty patrol in half



The Canadian military marked their presence on remote islands in the High Arctic last week, after bad weather threatened several times to shut down their sovereignty operation.

The exercise, dubbed Operation Kigliqaqvik, brought 22 military personnel to Isachsen, an abandoned weather station on Ellef Ringnes Island, west of Grise Fiord. “Kigliqaqvik” is the Inuktitut phrase for “at the edge of known land.”

The area around the decommissioned station is known to have the worst weather in the country, backed by an Environment Canada climate severity index score of 99 out of 100.

During the recent expedition, winds were strong enough to rock the military’s trailer homes back and forth. Ice crystals added to their problems, reducing visibility to less than 10 metres.

The inhospitable conditions meant the military had to cut half their travels from the sovereignty expedition.

Military leaders even cancelled their much-publicized search and rescue exercise – a mock plane crash – meant to test their abilities to respond to disasters in the farthest reaches of the Arctic islands.

Major Stewart Gibson, who coordinated the exercise from the site, said white-outs began as soon as the group arrived there on April 4. Winds gusted up to 100 km per hour, while the temperature dipped to -30 C, without the wind chill factor.

“It was a storm like I’ve never seen before in the Arctic,” Gibson said by satellite phone from the site last week.

The storm contributed to earlier weather delays when the patrol was trying to reach Resolute from Yellowknife, and later attempting to fly to the weather station. In all, High Arctic conditions set military plans back three days.

Despite the conditions, two Ranger patrols managed to complete half of their original tasks for the sovereignty part of their mission. Erratic weather forced organizers to cancel trips westward to Borden and Mackenzie King islands.

Patrols managed to reach two of their goals, driving snowmobiles 250 km northeast to Meighen Island, near Axel Heiberg Island. They travelled about the same distance southeast to Amund Ringnes Island.

Military planners said they were frustrated at the end of the exercise when they ran out of time to run a simulated plane crash. The training was to prime the military for a potential commercial airplane accident, a growing possibility as more than 142,000 flights cross the High Arctic every year.

Despite the change in plans, Gibson said the operation was a success.

“It’s been very successful from my point of view,” Gibson said. “In spite of brutal weather… we’ve still had people place their footprints on parts of Canada that people don’t normally visit.”

Master Cpl. Numa Ottokie backed up his patrol leader, saying that any logistical problems with weather shouldn’t be interpreted as a sign of weakness.

“Every time we have an exercise back home, we’ve been trained to do such events,” said Numa, who lives in Cape Dorset. “There’s nothing we can do about Mother Nature.”

The military exercise cost $1 million, twice as much as the last sovereignty patrol. The spending reflects an increasing concern about Canada’s claim to the Arctic, a potential treasure trove of non-renewable resources like natural gas and minerals.

Global warming is opening more shipping routes for foreign vessels, a trend that strengthens arguments that the Northwest Passage is an international shipping route.

Already, countries like the U.S. are challenging Canada’s ownership of certain parts of the region because there’s little government in those areas.

Sgt. Peter Moon, a media liaison for the Rangers, said the military’s sovereignty operations counter those claims.

“You have to have government activity to establish ownership,” Moon said. “If we don’t own it now, it could be taken from us in the future.”

Each sovereignty patrol ends when Rangers place a fibreglass pyramid stand at the sites they visit, with an inscription of the date that the exercise took place.

Nunavut Rangers participating in Operation Kigliqaqvik include David Aklah of Kugaaruk, Apuisie Apak of Clyde River, Paul Ikuallaq of Gjoa Haven, Manasie Kaunak of Grise Fiord, David Nanook of Taloyoak, and David Nuluk of Repulse Bay.

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