A frozen, snow-swept Arctic field introduces us to life around the Arctic Ocean as a narrator explains the barren wasteland is also an important source of oil as well as a strategic military point for the United States Navy in this circa 1975 film, “Window to the Arctic.”
“The United States Navy has been studying the Arctic for over a century,” it’s explained beginning at mark 1:30, every since US Naval vessels entered the area in 1850. Their mission was partly to find British Rear Admiral Sir John Franklin, who had disappeared on an Arctic expedition, but also “in search of the fabled Northwest Passage to the Pacific.” In 1870, the USS Jeannette became trapped in the ice during a scientific mission and drifted for almost two years before eventually sinking, with only a handful of men surviving the ordeal.
As drawings of the wrecked ship fill the screen, the narrator explains that her wreckage floated around the North Pole with remnant being found on the southern coast of Greenland. “Five years after her expedition started, Jeannette’s remains finally proved the circular motion of the polar sea.” Come mark 2:50, the film introduces us to Admiral Robert Peary, who famously claimed to have been the first to have reached the geographic North Pole in 1909. (In the late 20th century, Peary’s claim to have reached the North Pole became the subject of doubt). In 1926, Admiral Richard Byrd claimed to have led an expedition that was the first to circle the North Pole by air. (That claim also came under scrutiny by historians).
In addition to research and exploration, an abundance of oil has also drawn attention to the Arctic region, it is said at mark 3:10, as aerial footage shows black gold atop frozen water and snow white surfaces. In 1923, the US Congress set aside 37,000-square-miles of Alaska’s north slope was set aside as a naval petroleum reserve, “to safeguard fuel for a fleet newly converted from coal.”
At mark 03:53, seven scientists are shown arriving at the Arctic Research Laboratory in Point Barrow, Alaska, which was established in 1947, to begin experiments. From that small beginning, the narrator explains, most of what is known about the Arctic has been developed, as the camera pans along frozen wasteland. “The Navy studies have had great impact on Fleet operations in the Arctic. Our nuclear submarines move safely beneath the ice pack because their inertial navigational systems can be can be corrected by standards set in laboratory studies of arctic oceanography,” it is said as a sub glides through the murky green waters.
Researchers have also learned how to detect thin spots in the ice, allowing submarines to surface through them if necessary, as shown at mark 04:48, and allowed for safe passage of the ice-breaking oil tanker SS Manhattan. In 1969, the Manhattan became the first commercial ship to cross the Northwest Passage.
Work in the arctic also led to the creation of the Distant Early Warning Line, also known as the DEW Line. (The DEW Line was operational from 1957 to 1985). The Dew Line was a system of radar stations in the far northern Arctic region of Canada, with more stations along the North Coast and Aleutian Islands of Alaska as well as in the Faroe Islands, Greenland, and Iceland. It was set up to detect incoming bombers from the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and provide early warning of any sea-and-land invasion. The research also contributed to the eventual construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, or the Alaskan Pipeline, built between 1974 and 1977.
“A report by the Department of the Interior concluded that the Navy’s arctic research save two years in preparing for the pipeline. Two years which means at least 800 million extra gallons of oil,” we are told starting at mark 05:30. On that note, the film brings its viewers to Warren Denner, the director of the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory, at mark 05:53, who explains the importance of the laboratory and arctic research. At mark 07:30, the viewer also learns about Fletcher’s Ice Island, or Ice Island T-3, an iceberg used between 1952 and 1978 it was used as a manned scientific drift station.
As an aircraft lands on an icy field at mark 07:53, the viewer is treated to an explanation of the Arctic Ice Dynamics Joint Experiment (AIDJEX), an American and Canadian operation which began in 1975 and included the observations of currents, temperature and salinity in the upper layers of the Arctic Ocean. Even though it is headquartered in Santa Barbara, California, scientists at the Polar Research Laboratory, we are told at mark 12:35, conduct research to assist naval submarine sensors and sonar under ice-covered seas. Other projects the film touches upon are the coastal studies, the Tundra Biome Project (which includes the study of arctic animals including polar bears and wolverines), and various studies of whales and narwhal. Such research, the narrator concludes, “is opening a new world for today and tomorrow.”