UTQIAGVIK, Alaska --
As the sun dipped beneath the horizon on Nov. 18, residents of Utgiagvik, Alaska, embraced 24-hours of darkness that consumed the village for a bone-chilling 65 straight days.
Nestled on the Arctic Ocean, Utqiagvik, a city of approximately 5,000 people, is inaccessible by road and is the northernmost town in the United States and ninth northernmost in the world.
To the north of the town lies Point Barrow Long Range Radar Site, a modest compound with a vital 24/7 mission.
“The Point Barrow Long Range Radar Site is a key node of our overall long range radar system for our nation, as we use this system to keep an eye on activity that could pose a threat to our nation or our Canadian allies,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. David Nahom, commander, Alaskan NORAD Region, Alaskan Command and Eleventh Air Force. “Point Barrow, being our northernmost position, has a look into the Arctic and allows senior leaders to have situational awareness of what’s going on in the Arctic in terms of air traffic. So, it is a key piece.”
The intelligence provided by Point Barrow and other radar stations strategically located across the state of Alaska enables senior leaders the ability to make timely informed decisions in defense of North America.
The Cold War-era radar site deep in the Arctic Circle was constructed in 1957 and is manned by a few contractors and two active-duty Airmen, who deploy on rotation approximately every 30 days from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
“To have a place like this that’s strategically located and with quite a few groups and entities invested in the information transmitting from here shows how necessary it is for someone to physically be here to monitor this extremely important site,” said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Nicholas Pfeifer, assigned to the 381st Intelligence Squadron, who is currently manning the isolated post.
During a visit Feb. 3-4, 2023, a mere 11 days after the first sunrise of the year, Nahom toured the Point Barrow LRRS and engaged with the primarily Alaska Native traditional whaling community of Utqiagvik, whose welcoming and continued support of the military make this mission possible.
One way the military members on location have integrated with the Alaska Native community is through participation in Kivgiq 2023.
Kivgiq, “The Messenger Feast,” is an ancient Iñupiaq tradition which unites North Slope communities in a celebration of fellowship and dance. The feast was named for the two messengers who traditionally would travel from the host village to another village to invite the people to the Kivgiq. The four-day celebration is known to draw participants from the international circumpolar community, which includes Alaska, Canada and in previous years Russia, as well as members from the lower 48 states.
“Our relationship with all Alaskans is critical,” Nahom said. “In many cases we’re training and operating in airspaces and areas in and around their lands, as well as above them. They afford us the opportunity to train and prepare like no other location anywhere on earth. Our partnership is key so they understand the importance of what we do and we can be better stewards of the land and the airspace around Alaska.”
Pfeifer and his coworker, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Caleb Reeves, assigned to the 301st Intelligence Squadron, say sometimes it feels like they have a freezer burn on their face, and cabin fever occasionally sets in feeling like they’re on a submarine, yet they’re excited to be contributing to the definitively unique mission.
Average February low temperatures for the community typically hover around -20° F with gusting winds that can drive the windchill down to below -50° F.
“They say when you get an assignment, the three most important aspects that can make or break it are the people, the location, and the job, and if you get two out of the three, you’re generally pretty happy,” Pfeifer said. “Well, for me, I can say I’m lucky here because the job is significant, and the people and location are off the charts.”
While surviving -57° F temperatures in the veil of night with ravenous polar bears afoot requires a stout spirit, the two Airmen, and fellow civilian contractors, of Point Barrow LRRS understand the value of what they do and shine a light on what’s important in order to provide critical protection of North America.