How Canada’s Scientists Mapped the Arctic North and Weathered the Cold War

Edward Jones-Imhotep, The Unreliable Nation: Hostile Nature and Technological Failure in the Cold War (Boston: MIT Press, 2017)

Photo of Edward Jones-Imhotep

Edward Jones-Imhotep, author.

In the late 1940s, a new threat loomed large over western Europe and North America. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) transformed from the United States’ uneasy wartime ally to an ideological and political foe. What happened next is a familiar story: the race for the atomic bomb, the proliferation of spies and international secrecy, the Cuban missile crisis, and the “hot” wars in Korea and Vietnam, for example, are all moments we often think of as hallmarks of the Cold War. But what happens when the Cold War is examined away from the centers of power? What happens when, instead of focusing on Washington or Moscow, we draw our attention to, say, Ottawa?

In this light, it is no surprise that we end up with a narrative that—despite looking quite different—still retains a similar flavor to the traditional Cold War story. And while historians have recently begun exploring the relationship between the environment and technology during this period, Washington, DC remains a primary focal point. In Edward Jones-Imhotep’s new monograph, The Unreliable Nation: Hostile Nature and Technological Failure in the Cold War, however, technology and the environment are drawn together in order to define and delineate the Canadian North throughout the first twenty years of the Cold War.

The cover of Jones-Imhotep's book is dark blue with grey geometic maps in the background.

Jones-Imhotep’s reliance on the term “Canadian North” does not mean that he offers specific details about where this “North” is, but it is easily imagined as areas far from Ottawa—physically, as well as mentally. Where temperate rainforests turned to arctic tundra and the Hudson Bay and frozen Arctic began to dominate the landscape, Canadian scientists and officials attempted to study the atmosphere using mostly wartime technologies: radio, sonar, and the ionogram. The ionogram, perhaps the essential product of the atmospheric scientists’ work, graphed the ionosphere in two dimensions. As the outermost layer of Earth’s atmosphere and a possible conduit for long-distance radio waves, the ionosphere held a special significance for international relations. For Canada’s scientists and officials, the technological failure of the ionogram and short-wave radio became an innate characteristic of the North. As a result, the geopolitical and scientific boundaries of the Canadian Arctic (created on maps and not mileage markers) were drawn based on the technological failure of defense and communication technologies.

Because of its position between the epicenters of two superpowers, the Canadian Arctic became a “hostile environment,” a large, difficult-to-access area whose weaknesses could threaten Canadian sovereignty and statehood from scientific and geopolitical angles. Although Canada’s case is atypical for the Cold War period, Jones-Imhotep aims, and largely succeeds, at unpacking the ways the Canadian government saw and studied the Arctic, eventually defining it in opposition to technological success. Ultimately, to be able to technologically understand and survive in the North meant survival for Canada as a nation in and of itself.

Ultimately, to be able to technologically understand and survive in the North meant survival for Canada as a nation in and of itself.

Jones-Imhotep takes the reader more or less chronologically through the Canadian-funded study of the Arctic ionosphere, communications technology, and surveillance during the early Cold War era. Important for setting up the context of the Cold War, but perhaps a little long, the first two chapters discuss World War II radio technologies and the origins of the ionogram (e.g., the way that scientists visualized the ionosphere). The first chapter, “Nature of War,” emphasizes the efforts of the Canadian Navy to map, understand, and categorize different atmospheric phenomena in relation to the more-studied and understood tropical and temperate ionospheres. Because the temperate ionosphere had been studied to a great extent, the behaviors and characteristics of the ionosphere in these areas were deemed “normal.” With the temperate as a control, the somewhat abnormal behavior of Arctic and the tropical ionospheres were linked together. These areas also became geographically significant during and after World War II, and thus brought in considerable amounts of research funding.

The bright green rays of the auroa are reflected in the water.

The aurora visible in Alberta, Canada. This visual effect of the ionization of particles in the Earth’s upper atmosphere is just one way in which the Canadian North thwarted the mapping efforts of Canadian scientists during the Cold War. Photo by Jeff Wallace, May 2015.

This research funding revealed that oftentimes technologies developed in the tropics and temperate regions failed to function in the more remote Arctic regions. Throughout the middle chapters, Jones-Imhotep outlines the problems of standardization and the ionogram’s ability to travel, not just between Canadian officials and those in Washington, London, or Melbourne, but between field stations and sites throughout the Arctic. Without standardized technology, the ionogram was both difficult to produce and difficult to understand in a global context. Connecting with other science studies scholars’ interest in the local and global, Jones-Imhotep analyzes why and how atmospheric scientists in the 1940s and 1950s made their work readable on a global scale. Revealing how scientists understood their scientific images—the ionosphere’s projections onto a two-dimensional surface—Jones-Imhotep contends that the Arctic, and thus Canadian Northern natural order, came to be understood in opposition to technological success and global readability. But global readability wasn’t a given: the ionogram failed if it could not be read in Ottawa.


A map of the globe features Canada in red at the center of the western hemisphere.

This map of the western hemisphere, showing Canada at the center, was created using an orthographic projection. Image from Wikimedia Commons, January 2014.

By the fourth chapter, Imhotep leaves behind the problems of standardization to delve into his thesis that the Canadian North was defined by technological failure. Rhetoric about the Arctic—both its extreme conditions and its uncertain terrain—tapped into the conversations about other unknown environments: outer space, the moon, and the deep sea. Like the space program was in the United States, exploring the North was a deeply Canadian project; atmospheric scientists were engaged with a nationalist program in their own right.

Sparse trees fill the foreground while a few old and abandoned buildings fill the background.

Abandoned Cold War era buildings at the Churchill research station in Churchill, Manitoba. Photo by Royal Olive, July 2007.

The significance of the Canadian North (especially at latitudes higher than 60ºN) was invoked primarily in geopolitical terms. Canada’s strategic position between the USSR. and the United States meant that the Canadian government felt threatened by—and had plans for—potential invasions by both superpowers. And the obvious strategic significance of the shortest distance between Moscow and Washington meant that Canadian defense ministry attempted to temper the failures of both communications and satellite technologies. Not only did political threats from outside jeopardize Canada’s sovereignty, but political threats from within the very areas officials sought to control loomed large within the governmental imaginary. By chapters six and seven, Jones-Imhotep moves to analyze communications technologies—and primarily radio—within the Canadian North. Attempts to follow meteor trails to avoid the atmospheric disturbances or failures associated with short-wave radios reveal how the natural orders of the Arctic generated these technological systems. Nature and technology, at least in the Arctic, were mutually defined. Eventually, the fallibility of radio defined the North’s boundaries; consistent radio signals meant the listener was south of the northern environment.

Jones-Imhotep concludes by suggesting the Canadian North was geographically and politically defined by communication and technological failures associated the peculiarities of the northern environment; the isolated outposts were difficult to reach, let alone communicate with. The process of studying, delineating, and organizing the boundaries of the North that took part during the first twenty or so years of the Cold War thus became a process of nationalization, defining Canada inclusive of the northernmost reaches. The Canadian Arctic provided a unique identity to the Canadian people and the role Canada could play in the global order. And, perhaps Jones-Imhotep’s most revealing admission, that Cold War Canada was atypical of this period, nevertheless reveals what sort of power resides outside the centers of power.

A map of the arctic shows US research stations in blue and the USSR in red.

This map shows how research stations would proliferate in the Arctic as the Cold War progressed. Image from the United States Central Intelligence Agency, May 1978.

Overall Jones-Imhotep intricately weaves together the historiography of environmental history, technology studies, science studies, and the history of science to analyze Canada’s Cold War technology. As part of the Inside Technology series for the MIT Press, Jones-Imhotep’s book focuses primarily on the details and diagrams of these technological failures. While this might occasionally be difficult for the lay reader, his voice regularly resurfaces to connect to the scholarship done by others, most notably Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison in Objectivity. The thoroughness of the historiography is to be commended, though at points it can be overwhelming.

The Unreliable Nation would serve as good reading for those interested in Cold War Canada, Canadian Studies, human geography, or the intersections between technology and the environment. It would serve well in a graduate-level seminar about the relationship between environment and technology or on science studies. Both a cultural history of twentieth-century Canada and a detailed study of the technological processes by which Canada came to define its northern frontier, the book succeeds in articulating the ways in which technological failure can create meaning and identity. Imhotep’s analysis of Canada during the Cold War finally reveals how the Cold War looked when caught between the global political centers in Washington and Moscow.

Featured image: An abandoned Cold War era radar station in Churchill, Manitoba. Photo by Mike Beauregard, April 2014.

Elizabeth Nielsen is a historian of science, technology, and medicine and a Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Her research interests focus on the ways in which science, technology, and medicine have been used in and contribute to conversations in international diplomacy and global politics. Contact. 



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