The 'Frozen Chosen': What’s it like to live, work in the northernmost permanently inhabited place on Earth?

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer

Not many people could imagine braving a location situated in a climate so extreme that it is considered unsuitable for human habitation.

Once you factor in the snow that falls all year round, the 24 hours of darkness during frigid winter months and the mere 508-mile distance from the North Pole, it’s no wonder that so few people live and work in the northernmost permanently inhabited settlement on Earth – Alert, located in the most northerly Canadian territory of Nunavut.

Alert’s proximity to the North Pole, according to Amusing Planet, means that it can’t connect with communication satellites because their orbit lies below the horizon.

The select few that live and work in the remote area, where the nearest populated place is more than 300 miles south in Greenland, are called the “Frozen Chosen.”

Kristy Doyle in Alert, Canada

Kristy Doyle, who was deployed to CFS Alert in December 2011, poses on the signs that show just how far away Alert is from other towns and cities in the world. (Photo/Kristy Doyle)

“At any given time, you’ll have maybe 60 people in the winter who are living there,” said Byron Felske, a Toronto native and former Alert resident who completed contracted work there as a global atmosphere watch lab operator for the Environment Canada weather station from July 2009 through September 2010.

Felske was once told that there were technically only eight permanent residents, he shared with AccuWeather.

“Because all of the construction is done during the summer, that’s when the number of people who are staying there will balloon,” Felske said. “You can get between 100 and 200 people there at one point in time or another.”

The small settlement located in Alert is mostly intended for scientific research.

“No one is naturally from Alert, so there’s not like a proper city,” said Felske, who had to adjust quickly to living in such a small area, coming from Canada’s most populous city.

“To be living in essentially a small settlement which is a few buildings all connected together with like 50 people, it was like its own unique small-town feel,” he said.

Alert’s military history

CFS Alert in Nunavut, Canada

This sign stands outside of Canadian Forces Station (CFS) Alert, which is Canada's most remote military outpost. (Photo/Byron Felske/Blogspot)

In addition to the researchers that work there, Alert is home to Canada’s most remote military outpost, Canadian Forces Station (CFS) Alert, which was named after a British ship of the same name, according to the Royal Canadian Air Force.

There are approximately 55 full-time military and civilian personnel working at the station, and most personnel spend about six months working there. It first opened in 1958 as Alert Wireless Station under the Canadian Army’s command.

In the 1950s, it was first settled as a weather station of the Joint Arctic Weather Station (JAWS) system, and in the 1960s, as a result of unification, it became CFS Alert. It’s been under the command of the Royal Canadian Air Force since April 2009.

“They used to do climate research there, and in the Cold War period in the ‘50s and ‘60s, Canada received pressure from the United States to maintain that sovereignty and to make sure that Russia wasn’t using that land or anything like that,” Felske said.

“That’s when CFS Alert was established,” he added. “For a long time, they had signal operators, so they would use their telecommunications equipment to see if they could pick up any chatter from Russia, and they would transfer that information back on.”

What’s the weather like?

Those living in Alert have to adjust to the five straight months of summer sunlight and five months of total darkness during the cold winter season. The remaining two months provide a tease of the regular sun up/sun down process the rest of the world is accustomed to, according to author Chris Hannigan.

Although most people would think that months of pitch-black sky would be the hardest to get used to, Felske said that depending on how far north a person lives in the U.S. and Canada, they’re probably already familiar with early dark evenings in winter.

“If you’re cramped in your office all day and by the time you leave work, it’s dark, and sometimes when you get up in the morning, it’s dark, so it wasn’t too much of an adjustment when there’s the 24-hour darkness because usually, you’re not seeing much of the sun during the day,” Felske explained.

Polar Bear Dip - Alert, Canada

Byron Felske and colleagues participated in the Polar Bear Dip in Alert, Nunavut, in water that was below freezing. (Photo/Byron Felske/Blogspot)

However, it took some time for him to adapt to the bright summer days and nights, as there is no nighttime from approximately April 8 to Sept. 5.

“At the peak of summer, the sun revolves around the horizon, rising no higher than about 30 degrees above the horizon at noon and dipping to about 16 degrees above the horizon at midnight,” according to the Royal Canadian Air Force.

“You’d finish up work Friday night, they had a bar there and you’d finish up at the bar, you’ve had your drinks and normally you’d be going to sleep, and it’s a bright, sunny day,” Felske recalled. “It looks like it’s just after noon, and it’d be quite inviting to just stay awake.”

Many Alert residents solve the issue by placing wooden panels over the windows during the normal sleeping hours to block out sunlight.

Average summer high temperatures range from 35 to 38 degrees Fahrenheit, with average summer lows falling between 27 to 29 F. The warmest day on record rose to 68 F, according to AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist and Canada Weather Specialist Brett Anderson.

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“Soon as the sun starts coming up and things are getting a little warmer, you’d get a lot of melting of the snow and ice,” Felske said. “In some places, you would get enough of a melt that you’d see grass and it would look just like a field; it would be a little harder just because the permafrost doesn’t really melt too much.”

Relay for Life Team Alert - Kristy Doyle

Military personnel based in Alert, Nunavut, Canada, participate in the world's most northerly Relay for Life, a fundraiser cancer walk for the Canadian Cancer Society. "The inaugural lap of our relay was 1 km (0.62 miles) outside in the minus 20 degrees Celsius (minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit) air," said Kristy Doyle, who was deployed to Alert in December 2011. (Photo/Kristy Doyle)

Rain isn’t too common in Alert. “There is only about 0.70 of an inch of rain that falls per year,” Anderson said. "It is usually too cold for rain much of the year, and the climate is a dry one, as moisture has a hard time getting that far north. There is usually no measurable rain outside of the summer months.”

During winter, the average highs range from minus 20 to minus 15 F, and average lows are between minus 35 and minus 28 F. “The coldest temperature that we ever recorded was minus 69 degrees Celsius (minus 92 F) with the wind chill,” Felske said.

The unique location, which lies closer to Moscow than it does to Canada's capital city of Ottawa, which is about 2,579 miles away from Alert, averages about 73 inches of snow for the year, with about 10 inches of that coming during the winter months, according to Anderson.

The snowiest month on average is September, which receives 13 inches on average.

“We all have the common experience of living in this place that so few people get to, so it’s a little bit of a badge of honor,” Felske said of his experience.

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