Letter From Qaanaaq, Greenland: The Man Who Listens for Nuclear Tests Above the Arctic - Pacific Standard
Svend Erik had not intended to spend the last 37-odd years of his life permanently in Qaanaaq, stewarding critical data through decades of changes in computing and communications technologies, but he had fallen in love.

I'd heard there was a man who worked alone above the Arctic Circle, monitoring disturbances in the air to reveal illegal nuclear tests. So I had gone to find him and his infrasound listening station in Qaanaaq (population: 650), one of the most remote towns in northern Greenland, a region once known as Ultima Thule: the edge of the known world. The Zodiac puttered through fog and ice to the dark sand of the town's beach, where Inuit peoples have lived and hunted for more than 4,500 years.

To find Svend Erik, I would first have to find the blue house near the big red building. To illustrate where this was, our local guide, tasked with meeting new arrivals onshore, scratched a map on the sand with a long stick: a large oblong next to a small square, some dots marking footsteps to be taken up a hill. Up above, bright clapboard buildings dotted the landscape; almost every one was red or blue.

"When I find the house, what should I do? Just knock?"

"Oh, he won't hear you. So go in." I greeted this instruction skeptically. He laughed and assured me, "He won't mind."

A version of this story originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

A version of this story originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

Eventually, I found what conceivably could be Svend's house next to a red warehouse: a small blue clapboard home with unobscured views of the bay and its slowly drifting icebergs. A piece of rope held the door shut. I unhooked it and let myself in, calling loudly. I walked softly through the rooms of the stone-quiet house until I came to a workspace overflowing with shelves of computer equipment, monitors, printers, binders upon binders of paperwork, and a workbench with a plethora of tools, nuts, and bolts. Behind a stack of machinery, Svend Erik was entering data at one of the terminals.

"Oh, hello!" he said. We'd startled each other slightly, but he seemed not at all bothered. Tall and lanky, he stood up to greet me with a cigarette dangling in one hand. He extended the other, rough-palmed, to greet me in his thick Danish accent. Set below crinkled hazel eyes, his white-gray mustache, tinged with tobacco stains, looked something like a walrus'. I said I hoped he might show me the listening array and he said of course—that he was headed there now, and let's get in the truck.

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A soft rain fell in a mist that obscured the road. Svend laughed and said this was nothing. On the only road out of town, we soon came to rocky sections grooved with wide rivulets and holes shaped by an enormous snowmelt, but eventually we made our way to the station. The snowmelt had torn up the power lines to the array, forcing Svend to come out every other day to tinker with it.

We parked, and I followed Svend through a fence. I had never felt so cold. I could hardly stand to take my gloved hands out of the pockets of my fleece-lined parka, but Svend was wearing only a light windbreaker over a thin sweater and a shirt unbuttoned at the neck. His hands were bare, and his head, neck, and ears were also uncovered. I strained to hear his quiet voice above the sharp wind that occasionally picked up and squealed around us. This was balmy weather compared to fall, when day temperatures would drop below 0°F, and being out in the middle of the day like we were now would mean floundering in darkness.

The array itself is one of several hundred across the world that are owned by the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, the still-unenforced global effort to eradicate nuclear weapons and their testing. It has a tall antenna of about 10 feet, with two dozen spokes splayed in a circle on the rocky ground at its base, like a cocktail umbrella pushed upside down and inside out. Each spoke is affixed with two small, evenly spaced brown cubes; these are infrasound sensors so powerfully attuned that they can pick up minute changes in air pressure that come in the wake of massive detonations hundreds of miles away.

What they most often picked up were the bomb-loud sound waves of nearby icebergs calving from the massive Greenland ice shelf, the building-size chunks bobbing past Svend's office every day. They were so big that one that had floated past his window two decades ago would only now be nearing the end of its life, oceans away.

When the Chelyabinsk meteorite careened over the Urals in broad daylight in 2013, the array picked up the enormous air blast of its explosion, he said. But, in all the time Svend has been there, he says no untoward illegal testing of nuclear weapons has ever piqued the instruments' interest. Back in the 1960s, however, the Russian Arctic had been a hotbed of explosions during the Cold War.

I shuffled from foot to foot as my snowboot-encased toes went numb. Svend unscrewed a gasoline canister and filled the hand-cranked generator he had rigged up to keep the array online until the road could be repaired and the power lines replaced, which would hopefully be soon, he said. "Sometime."

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The data the array collected was transmitted to Svend's lab in the blue house, and, from there, he sent it securely to headquarters in Vienna, Austria, where the International Monitoring System laboratory analyzed and verified it. As an electrical engineer, it was his job to maintain the integrity of the dataflow. He had been doing some form of this work in his crowded workspace, alone, since 1980, when he first arrived in Qaanaaq to work in meteorology. He began working with the Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization in 2001.

Nearing 70, Svend had not intended to spend the last 37-odd years of his life permanently in Qaanaaq, stewarding critical data through decades of changes in computing and communications technologies, but he had fallen in love. Both with the village and with how differently time passed there. It was like the place stood somehow outside of the modern world, there on the edge of the ice.

Svend also fell in love with a local woman he had met there and married. They together had raised three children, now adults. All but one of them still live nearby.

Back in the office, while he rolled endless cigarettes from a pouch of tobacco, Svend told me about this, and about how he had come to the job by accident. As an engineering graduate in Denmark during the energy crisis in the 1970s, he had trouble finding work in his home country and ended up applying for positions farther afield. He couldn't imagine living anywhere else now. He was soon due to retire, and he had no plans to move.

Things had changed in the village. People still lived traditional lives of subsistence summer hunting to last the harsh, black winters. A plane still landed only once a week. But the isolation at the end of the world was lessened by technology. At first, there had not even been television, just a daily half-hour newscast on the shortwave radio. But then television arrived, and now there were mobile phones, email, and the Internet. But these extra incursions of modernity had only heightened his loneliness.

"I think actually that I feel more remote with all this information about the world then I did without it," Svend said, as he gazed through the window at the sea. "I have a dream about what it was in the real old days," he said as he drew on his cigarette.

"They had some guns at the store that they would fire to say goodbye to the ship, to the last boat in September, and there would be almost no interference from the outside world for six months. I have a feeling that people would feel in the middle of everything instead of feeling remote."

I asked if he thought things would be better that way.

For a long moment, he was silent. Then: "I don't know," he said. "But it was my dream."

A version of this story originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

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