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Fiber To The North Pole

Well, not exactly to the North Pole, but close! 947 miles from the pole, to be precise.

In the summer of 1991, I was Project Manager for a 30-mile cable install at Thule Air Force Base in the Northwest corner of Greenland. We were placing submarine grade, armored fiber optic cable. The Air Force was upgrading: A new digital switch, new copper cabling on base, and a new fiber optic link connecting to the two sites that are the base’s mission to support. These sites were an early warning missile radar at ”J Site” and the ”Polar Orbit Geophysical Observatory” or POGO.

The cable itself was from Northern Telecom (remember them?) and was a loose tube design with a single armor layer, polyethylene (PE) sheath with a Jute layer over the PE, then galvanized wire wrap and finished with an asphalt-impregnated jute layer over the wire. These were the same type of layers used in ‘near shore’ or shallow Submarine Networks. In our case, the wire armor brought the cable diameter to just over an inch and the weight up to a pound per foot. The continuous reel lengths, due to cable diameter and weight, were less than 1.5 miles. The inside of the fiber cable was ‘standard’, but the submarine-style armor made it very different to work with.

The justification for the wire armor was the possible damage from the Arctic Fox. They are very common on base and in the surrounding landscape. Permafrost was also an issue. Simple rodent grade, single armor tape would not provide enough protection and this cable would lay on top of the ground - buried was not a solution. Almost all infrastructure in Thule is above ground, so where we could, we placed it alongside other existing utilities like the water lines.

The cable was so heavy that simple figure eights took hours to offload and reload - even with a powered take-up on the reel trailer. We began placement of cable out of the Central Office on the base and it took us most of a week to lay the first cable due to all the road crossings. Due to the type of cable, the location, and the equipment available, most of the placement was by hand - simply paying off the reel and laying it along an assigned route. With all the obstacles on the route, we were required to pay off the cable onto the ground, into one or more large figure eights, and then pull it through or under obstacles. We would then put what was left back on the reel so we could continue forward.

We had from the first week of July to the first week of September to finish the project and 24 hours per day of daylight - no sunset until September! Despite losing about a week of time to what was called a “Storm Phase”, i.e. high winds and snow, we managed to complete the project within schedule.

Winter Storms are a very serious matter in Thule. The roads between the ‘off base’ sites have permanent shelters called Phase Shacks every ¼ mile which has supplies, heat, phone, and bunk beds to survive a storm. Help may not come during the storm because winds have been recorded up to 207 mph! That was when the anemometer broke off its mount!

In the attached photo notice the barren landscape. Nothing grows higher than grass. The silver pipe in the background is a heated water pipe along which the cable was placed.

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