The Pinetree Line

On January 17, 2012 · 6 Comments

I’m not sure how I stumbled upon the Pinetree Line. I suppose I thought it was an unusually descriptive term so I tucked it away for my list of "things to ponder later." It was a Cold War manifestation, an effort by Canada and the United States to provide an early warning system should the Soviet Union send bombers over the North Pole to shower North American cities with nuclear explosions. Cheery thought, eh? The Pinetree Line ran basically along the low-50’s parallels north, which also happen to be roughly where deciduous trees give way to conifers of the boreal forests.

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For once I get to use someone else’s map: this one comes from based on data listed in Wikipedia’s article on the Pinetree Line. There are other good sources including a comprehensive list on and a map on – The Air Defenses Radar Veterans Association.

The "duck and cover" era of the early 1950’s was a fearsome time. The world could end at any moment. Everyone understood the terrible effects of nuclear weapons, and worse, the technology diffused and proliferate amongst adversaries. Defenses needed to be developed. One such countermeasure consisted of a line of radar stations strung between the Pacific to Atlantic coasts, and then heading north towards Baffin Island, the so-called Pinetree Line.

They were obsolete almost as soon as they were constructed. It was always supposed to be a final line of defense, providing only a last-ditch warning should the USSR send bombers over Canada. Soon the Soviets switched to jet-powered aircraft and the potential warning time dropped even further. Plus, the radar technology used on the line had trouble detecting airplanes flying close to the ground. That wasn’t a good combination. Radar stations were added further north with new technology to address the deficiencies. Stations along the Pinetree Line started being decommissioned by the end of the decade. A few managed to hang on stubbornly even into the 1980’s.

The locations selected for individual radar sites varied widely. Some logically were collocated with Royal Canadian Air Force Bases; some were placed in developed areas near international airports, some were found on remote mountaintops, and some were perched atop rocky islands in the barren north. The experiences of the servicemen must have varied considerably as well. I imagine someone stationed on an outcrop in what is now Nunavut must have felt a kinship with 19th Century lighthouse keepers while those at RCAF Station Comox near a town of 12,000 residents might have enjoyed considerably greater amenities. Veterans groups remain active and sometimes share messages related to their experiences protecting North America along the Pinetree Line.

One can still see remnants of the old Pinetree Line although time has begun to take its toll. I recommend looking at the Google Map that I borrowed, above. Put it into satellite mode and drill-down. Here are a few that I enjoyed:

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Cold Lake C-36 in Alberta is now part of the Cold Lake Air Force Museum. This may be one of the few places where one can easily and legally access a former site on the Pinetree Line. Additionally one can view several aircraft on display including a CF-5 Freedom Fighter, CT-133 Silver Star and CT-134 Musketeer, plus three other collocated museums. This would be at the top of my list if I ever visited the area.

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Resolution Island N-30 in Nunavut makes my list because it’s hard to imagine any place more desolate and remote. There isn’t so much as a tree or any other plant life within view. It’s no more than barren rock with a few huts and the winters must have been brutal. It must have taken a special person to work here.

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I like Falconbridge C-9 outside of Sudbury, Ontario simply for truth in advertising. They weren’t making any attempt to hide its function. The site is located right along Radar Road.

Totally Unrelated

I developed a map of all United States counties with fewer than one person per square mile a couple of weeks ago in More Land than People. The blog "Data Pointed" has taken this to an entirely different level, a map of every Census Block with fewer than one person per square mile. Wow! This one shouldn’t be missed. It puts my pitiful attempt to shame.

On January 17, 2012 · 6 Comments

6 Responses to “The Pinetree Line”

  1. brent says:

    The radome at Alsask, SK is still standing. Streetview link:

    Dana, SK was torn down a couple years ago.

    I drove by Alsask on the cross-Canada trip this past summer.

    View Larger Map

  2. Phil says:

    Wow – I can only imagine the challenge of living in Nunavut (then N.W.T. of course) in the 50s. I figure one day I’ll try to make it up there – but yeah, what is there to see outside of a few remote (and very expensive to get to) national parks.

    Nice find on the census block map…truly shows how the west remains a frontier in many aspects

  3. Fritz Keppler says:

    Don’t have any still pictures of it, but I saw a Pine Tree Line station atop Table Mountain near Stephenville, Newfoundland a number of years ago. Couldn’t get too close, but it was easily visible from the town of Port au Port West, a French-speaking area of the province.

    The other radar lines were the Mid-Canada Line and the DEW (Distant Early Warning) line in the far north. Even these were made obsolete by the coming of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles to replace bombers.

  4. Josh says:

    Not sure if you’ve seen this, but GOOGLE MAPS HAS OUTLINES NOW!!!!!!

    Only in the “map” section, not the “satellite” section. Search for most places, and a pink outline will come up, eg. This applies to counties, states, towns, some neighborhoods, and some countries. It seems Google is not touching disputed borders, so Israel, China, India, etc. don’t have outlines.

    Canada also doesn’t have an outline, which I guessed was due to Hans Island, but Denmark does have one. Also strangely, Denmark does not include Greenland, and France does not include the overseas departments. Another question arises when one looks at Quebec City, here: Is the Residence Hospital General not a part of the city? Or is this an understandable mistake due to growing pains?

    Anyway, have fun!

    • Josh, it first appeared earlier this week, and it’s exactly as I saw it when they did their apparent test run a few weeks ago. It includes Zip Codes too and possibly other areas too. I’ve been waiting a little while to make sure it’s "permanent" and plan to cover it on Sunday. Thanks for the affirmation.

      • Ian Dunbar says:

        Just after reading this I happened to look for a UK postcode on Google maps, and sure enough there was a dotted line with pink infill consistent with the area (typically about 10 houses) covered by the code.

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