DEW Line Passage

Background Information on the Distant Early Warning Line


The DEW Line Project is the collaborative effort to produce a comprehensive and interdisciplinary history of the DEW Line. The Project's primary researchers are Whitney Lackenbauer, Ph.D, assistant professor of Canadian history at St. Jerome's University at the University of Waterloo, Ontario and Matthew Farish, Ph.D., assistant professor of geography at the University of Toronto, Ontario.

Farrish and Lackenbauer are writing a book, The DEW Line: A Spatial History, which will be a significant landmark in the history and geography of Canada, Arctic studies, Cold War history, political geography, native studies, and environmental studies.

Retired Canadian Air Force Officer Larry Wilson maintains the definitive DEW Line website.

Wilson's website includes information on every DEW site, articles on aspects of the Line, stories, photos and more (largely submitted by DEW Liners). Larry Wilson runs several other websites on the military presence in the Arctic since 1950, which are linked to from Larry Wilson's HomePage.

DEW Line Historical Context: Project 572

In the late 1940s, the American government launched ‘Project 572’: code name for a string of fifty-seven radar stations along the 70th parallel that would provide early warning of a Soviet bomber attack, giving the U.S. time to attempt interception and to retaliate.  Forming a wall of defense spanning the continent north of the Arctic Circle, contractors built six Main radar stations about 500 miles apart, 23 Auxiliary stations every 100 miles, and 28 Intermediate stations every 50 miles.  By many accounts, the DEW Line was the largest and most ambitious peacetime military project in history.

Building and maintaining the DEW Line constituted a veritable transformation of the Arctic landscape as contractors with no practical experience in the unique engineering demands of arctic terrain encountered a logistics nightmare in deploying new technology in the unfamiliar environment.  Stretching over 3,000 miles from the Aleutians to Greenland, the DEW Line brought - in increments of every fifty miles - employment opportunites in industrial wage labor, thousands of southern workers, building materials, modern health care, air transportation, alcohol, Hollywood movies, navigation aids, safe harbour, contamination and more to the to the indigenous inhabitants of the Arctic.             

Technological advances have consistently required fewer sites and technicians to maintain the updated 'North Warning System,'* which is now largely automated.  The cost of closing the stations was high, however, and very little of the materials used to build and maintain the radar sites was removed until recently.  Extensive landfills accompany each radar site, and as the sites were left to decay or were demobilized, a legacy of contamination was created that impacts subsistence resources and health in the Arctic to this day (Capozza 2002).  Defense Construction Canada has characterized the DEW Line as “the biggest environmental cleanup in North one of the world’s most fragile ecosystems,” (Press 2007).The radar sites have led directly to local knowledge of contaminants and subsequent efforts to enforce environmental laws in the Arctic.

* The 'DEW Line,' strictly speaking, no longer exists yet the sites are still commonly known as DEW Line sites.

Sources Cited

Capozza, K. (2002). The DEW Line: Ditched drums and all. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Volume 58.

Canadian Press (2007). Critics worry that military interest in Arctic creating massive junkyard. Westisland Chronicle.

Updates List/Links