A Remote Cold War Radar System Has New Use in a Warming World

The stations designed to ring an alarm against nuclear attack may have new responsibilities due to climate change

Cold Comfort DEW Line
Donovan Wylie/Magnum Photos

How cold was the cold war? The workers who built the DEW (Distant Early Warning) Line in the mid-1950s liked to toss a glass of water into the air just so they could hear the firecracker-like report as the droplets instantaneously froze. They were working in some of the most remote places on earth, on a new line of defense commissioned by the U.S. and Canadian governments: a series of 63 radar and communications stations, most of them manned, running some 3,000 miles from Alaska to Baffin Island and eventually to Iceland, to sound the alarm if attacking Soviet bombers came over the polar horizon. The DEW Line searched the skies until the 1980s, when it was replaced by the North Warning System, a string of 51 unmanned radar stations, such as LAB-1 (right) in Newfoundland and Labrador, the subject of Donovan Wylie’s new book of photographs, North Warning System.

Now that the cold war is over and the planet is warming, more foreign ships—particularly Russian and Chinese ships—are exploring newly accessible Arctic waters, and military officials are considering whether the system should be updated to detect marine threats as well.

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