The Meanook mysteries
A look inside the scientific hub that has seen 100 years of research on shooting stars, local lakes and the shifting North Pole
In a dark corner of a back room in the Athabasca Archives, you will find a synchronome clock. Under dust and fingerprints, a cylindrical pendulum hangs limply behind a glass door.
In its early days, the clock sat at the Meanook Magnetic Observatory, a timekeeper for its data collectors. Today, the clock is one of the few artifacts at the Archives from the observatory’s turbulent, internationally significant history.
It’s where Canadian meteor science was at its zenith, where the US Navy invested in Cold War research, where researchers came to study watersheds and wildfires.
It’s where scientists watched – and still watch – for fluctuations in the earth’s magnetic field, helping pilots navigate their journeys while waiting for the magnetic North and South Poles switch locations.
It all started with a 12-by-24-foot shack on July 1, 1916.
Herbert E. Cook and his wife, Mary, acquired land in the Meanook area and broke the first few acres with oxen.
He wrote about homesteading in Colinton & Districts: Yesterday & Today, noting that there were no roads, only trails through the bush. Soon, the federal government bought his half-section of land and a quarter from his neighbour.
“In 1916 I entered into a new and challenging type of employment with the Federal Government,” he wrote. Cook became the first person to run the Meanook Magnetic Observatory, measuring magnetic “declination” – the difference between magnetic north and true north – and sending the information to Ottawa for analysis.
Lorne McKee, physical scientist working in geomagnetic and space weather operations with Natural Resources Canada, said collectors at the Meanook site have been relaying this information about the earth’s magnetic fields back to Ottawa continuously ever since.
“It started, partially for trying to understand what’s happening with the Northern Lights, but navigation was more of its core mandate,” he said.
Years later, Cook’s daughter Anne told the Edmonton Journal some of the history behind the reason for the station’s location was lost, but it appeared to be because of its isolation.
“This station is the oldest operating magnetic observatory probably in the world that hasn’t had to be re-located,” she stated, noting that magnetic stations have to be away from electrical interference as well as ore bodies.
Ahead of its time
Over the next few years, the Meanook site expanded, especially around the International Polar Year in 1932-33.
A 1932 article in the Athabasca Archives states that the station got “an up-to-date scientific plant second to none in the Dominion.” New instruments were installed, attracting internationally-renowned scientists.
Even so, Meanook was simply one small piece to the federal scientific strategy.
At the turn of the 20th century, the Dominion Observatory was built in Ottawa, a government facility that would make a success out of the “colonial scientific backwater” of Canada, as one article from the Canadian Astronomical Society put it.
The groundwork of the observatory's early astronomers opened the path for people like Peter Millman, who served there as a student in the 1920s and joined the team in 1946.
In a 2009 article, historian and scientist Richard A. Jarrell states that Millman’s work in meteor science was the reason Canada was considered innovative and highly respected in the field.
For many years, much of his data was compiled in Meanook and Newbrook.
Millman, a Harvard graduate, became the Dominion Observatory’s head of stellar physics just as the Cold War started providing the fuel for an arms race.
A paper published in 1943 argued that meteors entering the earth’s atmosphere held a key to measuring its density. That information could then be used to show how objects – like rockets – handled the stress of flying through the upper atmosphere at high speeds. A joint project began between MIT and Harvard with Canadian assistance, while US Navy representatives agreed to underwrite a portion of the costs.
Once he was given the go-ahead in 1946, Millman chose to build two new observatories: in Meanook and Newbrook.
A 2.2-tonne Super-Schmidt camera was installed on each site, and Millman and Cook supervised the construction of buildings for new telescopes. New people were hired to conduct the research.
Top of their league
1957 was a big year for the two sites.
It was the International Geophysical Year. Jarrell says that by then, Newbrook and Meanook likely had the world’s greatest concentration of meteor cameras.
Moreover, after 41 years of service, Cook retired. An article from June 28, 1957 reported that the Meanook site was “one of the major observatories of the world” because of his interest and loyalty.
Cook’s daughter, Anne Cook, followed in her father’s footsteps and became the senior officer at the observatory. The Edmonton Journal reported she was the first woman in the world to run a magnetic observatory.
To top it all off, on Oct. 9, 1957, the Newbrook Observatory launched itself onto the world stage, taking the first photo from North America of the USSR’s Sputnik I. Jarrell states that for a short time after this, the two Alberta observatories were tasked with tracking the Soviet Union’s first two satellites.
Despite the brief dalliance with the Soviet’s objects in orbit, almost all the work at the Alberta stations during the 1950s and 1960s centred on meteors.
As the years went by and Millman took steps toward retirement, the push for meteor research died down. After talk of moving the Newbrook and Meanook stations to British Columbia, the federal government cancelled the meteor project in August 1968, Jarrell states. In 1970, Pierre Trudeau’s government merged the Dominion Observatory and Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) and cut budgets. In 1977, NRCan listed the land around the Meanook magnetic observatory as “surplus,” and an Environment Canada spokesperson says her department picked it up in 1979.
Anne Cook remained on site full time until 1980, collecting data of the earth’s magnetic fields. Gene Kowalchuk took over for Anne, on a part-time basis, as new technologies meant that a person no longer had to live on site.
New lease on life
The lull in activity was short-lived.
On April 4, 1983, Environment Canada signed a 50-year lease, allowing the University of Alberta to use the land for a biological field research station.
A 1986 Athabasca Advocate article states that professors Ellie Prepas and Bill MacKay started the “Meanook Project” in an effort to start building a database on the ecology of north central Alberta lakes.
Warren Zyla got his bachelor degree in zoology from the University of Alberta. He said that while he was a student in the early 1990s, he worked with Prepas on water quality studies in lakes around Athabasca.
“It was awesome,” he said. “It’s very much a summer camp for adults, I guess, is a good way of putting it. You work hard, and then in the evenings you play hard.”
Zyla said he worked with Prepas for about nine years. He became the groundskeeper at the Meanook station in 2001 when a particularly large study concluded.
“I said I’ll do it for a year, just to take a break from having worked forever – and then I couldn’t leave,” he said.
Zyla also said the nature of the facility – low housing costs, and isolation to allow scientists to focus on work – was a benefit to the university.
“The U of A biosci department was one of the stronger biosci departments, I think, in North America, because of a facility like this,” he said.
Scientists were not the only ones at the station. Open houses were held every summer, and elementary school kids did day trips to the facility. Zyla added local summer students worked there, too.
“It was more of a unique thing for a small rural area to have,” he said. “It attracted people from Alberta and other parts of the world to the area.”
End of an era
Zyla said he left in July 2013, and the station closed that fall. He said that over the years, more researchers from other institutions were using the facility, and fewer from the U of A.
An Edmonton Journal article from Feb. 1, 2014 states that “crumbling buildings and a lack of interest from scientists” were behind the closure.
“There was a lot of people using it, but there wasn’t someone who’s career depended on it,” Zyla said. “Nobody wanted it to shut down. But for some reason, it did.”
Hugh Warren is the University of Alberta’s associate vice-president of operations and maintenance for Facilities and Operations.
“With the pullback on costs and using cost-controls, we can’t afford to be out there or have a presence out there anymore, so we’re looking at an early exit clause on the lease,” he said, noting that ideally, the exit time would have been “five years ago.”
One point in the agreement between Environment Canada and the university states that the university has to reinstate lands “to the satisfaction of the Licensor.”
It also states the contract can be terminated “only if mutually agreed to by both parties.”
Warren acknowledged that the university had some “activities” to do to bring the land back to its natural state.
“We have to restore those ponds back to the natural landscape,” he noted. “The university buildings have been taken out; the university equipment has been taken out.”
The Meanook station’s operations have been stripped back to essentially the original mandate – collecting the earth’s magnetic data.
McKee says the Meanook magnetic observatory is now one of 13 across the country working under the umbrella of Natural Resources Canada.
“We measure the variations in the earth’s magnetic field – an ongoing project,” he said. “And that’s been, like I said, an ongoing project for a century.”
Rob Balay has been the main contractor there since 1999, after fourteen years assisting Kowalchuk, his father-in-law. He says his brother-in-law, Ken Day, works with him these days.
Walking around the warm, sunny observatory building late on a Saturday morning, Balay explains that the building was constructed without a single piece of iron. The roof is aluminum. Every nail is aluminum or copper. Even the paint is iron-free.
He steps through a defunct photo lab, complete with red light. He opens doors into rooms that hold heavy old instruments that have not been used in decades.
He flips the telescope on the theodolite, sighting the red and white azimuth mark on a concrete pillar in the distance. He eyes the attached microscope, which shows the horizontal and vertical components in degrees and minutes.
Balay then sits in front of a black and orange Packard Bell monitor and throws a floppy disk into the computer’s drive, explaining how he downloads the magnetic readings that are taken every second.
“It’s routine, now that we’ve been doing it so long,” he said in an interview.
If he’s lucky, Balay could be in for some magnetic excitement, if the predicted switch between the North and South Poles happens in his lifetime. He said the last major pole reversal was about 780,000 years ago. Studies show it generally happens every 200,000 to 300,000 years, and that the poles have been moving at a faster rate over the past few decades than at other times in modern history.
“They think that in my lifetime it will happen again, because it’s long overdue,” he said.