Epidemics, Area Physics, and Settler Understandings of the Aurora Borealis

“Northern Lights” by Picture Editor is licensed beneath CC BY 2.0

By Jennifer Fraser and Noah Stemeroff

Earlier this 12 months, Discover, a multimedia firm that operates the most important stay nature digital camera community on the planet, observed that one in every of its livestreams was going viral. The feed in query broadcasts from Churchill, Manitoba. Positioned instantly beneath the auroral oval, this digital camera affords viewers an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the spectacular auroral shows that grace town’s skyline almost 300 days of yearly. The burgeoning recognition of this stay cam is a direct consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic. Within the midst of rising coronavirus case numbers, Churchill’s digital camera footage was additionally experiencing exponential development, attracting tons of of 1000’s of latest viewers each month. When requested why their livestream was so fashionable, Discover executives hypothesized that it was due, partially, to the restorative powers of nature [1]. Of their minds, their northern lights footage was greater than only a enjoyable type of lockdown leisure. Reasonably, it was additionally serving a therapeutic perform. As airways had been grounding their planes, international locations had been closing their borders, and other people around the globe had been being ordered indoors, Discover’s northern digital camera footage supplied viewers with a secure technique of connecting to the atmosphere and tapping into its many bodily and psychological well being advantages.

Over the course of 2020, greater than 4.1 million individuals have logged onto Discover’s Northern Lights Cam. Though there’s something distinctly 2020 about our mobilization of the northern lights as a way of combatting our collective cabin fever, the coronavirus pandemic isn’t the primary time that the aurora borealis has been leveraged as a public well being useful resource. In actual fact, the notion that the northern lights may have actual and palpable well being results will be traced all the best way again to Nineteen Fifties Canada with the work of Otto Schaefer. This German-Canadian doctor additionally noticed the northern lights as taking part in an integral function in combatting illness—significantly within the struggle in opposition to most cancers—one other illness that had, within the context of the mid-twentieth century, reached epidemic standing.

To point out how medical concepts concerning the northern lights have advanced over time, this quick essay displays on Schaefer’s Arctic most cancers analysis and its long-term ramifications. In some methods, Schaefer was forward of his time. Even earlier than the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s extremely influential Silent Spring, Schaefer was taking an energetic curiosity in environmental most cancers analysis. Nonetheless, his work on this space additionally functioned as a mode of settler statecraft. By contextualizing Schaefer’s concepts about most cancers and the northern lights, and highlighting their intersections with contemporaneous developments in atmospheric physics, nuclear weapons testing, and the environmental justice motion, we hope to not solely present how northern lands, our bodies, and skylines have served as essential websites of scientific data manufacturing, but in addition how present-day understandings of the general public well being worth of the northern lights have to be seen as half of a bigger historical past of asymmetrical energy relations, ongoing environmental degradation, and longstanding efforts to disrupt Indigenous individuals’s rights and relationships to land.

Initially born in Germany, Otto Schaefer immigrated to Canada within the early Nineteen Fifties to take up a place as a medical officer for the Canadian federal authorities’s Division of Indian and Northern Well being Providers (IHS). This function took him to numerous distant northern settlements within the Central and Jap Arctic, the place he would stay and supply medical help to their Inuit residents. Though his curiosity within the northern lights was, initially, purely beauty (as an novice photographer, he would typically spend lengthy intervals of time making an attempt to {photograph} this spectacular pure gentle present), he would ultimately develop an curiosity in them as a medical phenomenon (Determine 1). This was as a result of, over the course of his tenure as an IHS doctor, Schaefer started to note that some Inuit communities with one of the best views of the northern lights additionally appeared to be disproportionately affected by most cancers. He began to marvel if this pure phenomenon could be someway answerable for this distinctive epidemiological sample [2].

Determine 1. The aurora borealis above Dr. Otto Schaefer’s Pangnirtung residence, February 1956. Reproduced right here with permission from Gerald W. Hankins, Dawn over Pangnirtung: The Story of Otto Schaefer (Calgary: Arctic Institute of North America, 2000), 92.

Maybe greater than the rest, Schaefer’s concepts about most cancers and the northern lights had been predicated on atmospheric analysis popping out of the Worldwide Geophysical 12 months (IGY). Going down in 1958, the IGY was a global scientific challenge directed in direction of the systematic examine of the Earth and its planetary atmosphere [3]. Along with selling analysis in numerous completely different fields, together with meteorology and oceanography, a key function of the IGY was uncovering the mechanisms underpinning auroral shows—a pure phenomenon that had lengthy mystified scientists. To search out out what should be blamed for the northern lights, house scientists from all around the world carried out an array of higher ambiance rocket and satellite tv for pc research. By way of these research, scientists found that the northern lights had been attributable to electrically charged particles from photo voltaic winds that had develop into trapped within the magnetosphere by a sequence of belt-like formations surrounding the earth (now generally known as the Van Allen radiation belts). On the poles, these particles work together with the earth’s higher ambiance, producing electromagnetic radiation. In response to these researchers, it was this radiation that was the supply of the aurora borealis’ attribute bands of inexperienced, pink, and blue gentle.

The concept the northern lights had been, primarily, seen manifestations of radiation power appears to have been the driving drive behind Schaefer’s concern about their impression on human well being. Though types of high-energy radiation had lengthy served as an essential most cancers remedy, their relationship to malignant illness had more and more come beneath hearth on account of a sequence of analysis research carried out within the wake of the Second World Conflict, together with a long-term examine carried out by the US Atomic Bomb Casualty Fee which discovered that the incidence of leukemia amongst Hiroshima and Nagasaki bomb survivors was greater than 600 instances that of the final inhabitants [4]. Schaefer’s views on the topic appear to have additionally been compounded by Chilly Conflict atomic weapons testing, together with the 1962 high-altitude check generally known as Starfish Prime, which resulted in an enormous man-made gentle present, producing a man-made aurora that might be seen throughout the Pacific Ocean from Hawaii to New Zealand [5]. This suborbital nuclear detonation lent assist to the concept that the northern lights could, certainly, include high-energy radiation. It additionally imbued them with a way of hazard—as many members of most of the people started to affiliate auroras with the nuclear arms race and the acute and latent well being results of atomic weaponry.

The invention that the northern lights had been attributable to a type of radiation emission, mixed with the data that some types of high-energy radiation (and radioactive supplies) had been probably cancer-causing, primed Schaefer to attach these contemporaneous discoveries to his personal medical observations and fieldwork within the South Central Arctic. He communicated these views to the broader medical neighborhood in a sequence of Canadian Medical Affiliation Journal articles within the late Nineteen Fifties and early Sixties, the place he drew consideration to the excessive charges of most cancers noticed in some Inuit communities in addition to the northern lights’ potential “unknown radioactive (?) or organic (?) results.” Though he acknowledged that these concepts had been based mostly on “very questionable proof, certainly,” he believed that this correlation was compelling sufficient to warrant additional investigation [6].

A part of Schaefer’s motivation for sharing this principle stemmed from his perception that understanding the connection between most cancers and auroral exercise was not simply professionally attention-grabbing, however virtually essential as effectively. Through the mid-twentieth century, most cancers was nonetheless very a lot a thriller to medical professionals. There was little or no consensus on what the elements underpinning the illness had been, and the way they may finest be prevented. Schaefer believed that if his hunch was right, it may present worthwhile perception into most cancers’s underlying etiology—info that would not solely decode the illness’s world improve, but in addition be mobilized within the growth of higher strategies of prevention and therapy. Schaefer additionally believed that his northern lights observations may defend Canadian navy and financial pursuits. It’s because the northern lights not solely posed a possible well being threat to Inuit, but in addition to the non-Indigenous laborers, researchers, and navy personnel that had been more and more stationed within the North on account of Chilly Conflict militarization and the expansion of Canadian mining and different types of useful resource extraction [7]. Though Schaefer’s requires additional analysis into the well being impacts of auroral exercise appear to have gone largely unheeded by different Canadian physicians, his concepts can be taken up by the Canadian authorities and would go on to form how they might method environmental causes of most cancers, significantly inside Arctic settings.

Within the early Sixties, P. M. Fowl, the Chief of the Radiation Safety Part of the Canadian Division of Nationwide Well being and Welfare launched a nationwide fallout examine program designed to detect ranges of strontium 90, cesium 137, and zirconium 95 in air, precipitation, soil, and human bone samples obtained from numerous northern communities [8]. Upon studying of the examine, Schaefer rapidly reached out to Fowl to ask if he had thought of the chance that strontium 90 and cesium 137 weren’t simply by-products of atomic blasts, however penalties of the “photo voltaic explosions accompanying naturally occurring auroral phenomena.” [9]

In viewing most cancers as a byproduct of environmental exposures, Schaefer’s northern lights theories could seem progressive—particularly by the requirements of his time. Nonetheless, these concepts are tough to disentangle from their settler colonial context. Not solely was Schaefer in Inuit communities as a state consultant, however his medical theories had been largely predicated on scientific discoveries made in the course of the IGY, an initiative which capitalized on the data and sources of polar locations, individuals, and airspaces [10]. Moreover, his promulgation of those theories was additionally intimately tied to Canada’s military-industrial complicated and ongoing efforts to facilitate and legitimize the nation’s extractive economic system. Maybe extra importantly, although, by attributing the excessive charges of most cancers skilled by Inuit to “naturally occurring” radiation, versus radioactive fallout, Schaefer’s concepts served to detract from the systemic ecological struggling of Indigenous communities perpetuated by settler state insurance policies.

Fowl’s fallout examine finally concluded that ranges of radioactive isotopes present in Inuit women and men had been under the utmost permissible physique burden, and thus didn’t appear to represent a big well being threat [11]. Nonetheless, his remaining report additionally said that he couldn’t low cost the impression that different types of radiation could be having on human well being, corresponding to “radiation from cosmic rays, terrestrial radioactivity of pure origin and pure radioactivity within the physique” that appeared to have an effect on “sure areas of the nation” greater than others [12]. Though Fowl by no means cites Schaefer instantly, his invocation of “cosmic rays” and “background radiation” appears to have come from his suggestion for his division to discover the connection between Inuit most cancers charges and “naturally occurring” radiation within the Earth’s ambiance.

This “naturalization” of Inuit most cancers charges would come to outline how instances of continual illness can be understood and addressed by Canadian coverage makers and healthcare professionals. Through the Seventies and Eighties, most epidemiological analysis popping out of Canada tended to undermine Indigenous-led requires environmental safety by explaining the excessive charges of most cancers noticed in Inuit communities by way of genetics, life-style, or acculturation, as an alternative of partaking with the very actual well being penalties of atomic weapons testing, the storage of nuclear waste, chemical manufacturing, and the environmental penalties of northern mining and metallurgical enterprises [13]. Thus, by attributing northern most cancers charges to “pure” or “background” causes, Schaefer’s theories served to attenuate the embodied and environmental hurt perpetuated by settler colonial practices and insurance policies, and absolve the federal authorities from taking any form of duty for them.

Along with being predicated on, and contributing to, ongoing settler efforts to subjugate Indigenous lands and peoples, Schaefer’s concepts would additionally pave the best way for future makes an attempt to border the northern lights as a worthwhile medical useful resource. Though the purported psychological well being advantages of Discover’s new northern lights stay stream is, admittedly, very far faraway from Schaefer’s mid-twentieth century most cancers analysis program, putting this new stay feed on this bigger family tree may help us perceive how and why the north has come to perform as a helpful well being useful resource, significantly in instances of epidemiological disaster.

Whereas tuning in to Discover’s new northern digital camera footage actually affords a welcome reprieve from the entire stresses and anxieties of 2020, Schaefer’s story invitations us to suppose extra critically about the place concepts of the northern lights as a therapeutic agent got here from, and who precisely they’ve been serving. As we will see from the recognition of Discover’s Churchill stay cam, northern settings and airspaces proceed to function as key reservoirs of medical data. Nonetheless, as we now have additionally seen, this data doesn’t at all times lengthen to the people and settings concerned in its manufacturing.


[1] D. Nelson, “Stream the Northern Lights From Your Residence Tonight (and Each Evening),” Thrillist, 27 March 2020.

[2] O. Schaefer, “Medical Observations and Issues within the Canadian Arctic: Half II,” Canadian Medical Affiliation Journal 81, no. 5 (1959): 386. Schaefer’s curiosity on this epidemiological anomaly got here to a head within the late Nineteen Fifties throughout a routine go to to Arviat, a predominantly Inuit hamlet positioned on the Western shores of Hudson Bay—simply 260km north of the place Discover’s Churchill digital camera at present broadcasts from.

[3] E. Aronova, Ok. S. Baker, and N. Oreskes, N, “Massive Science and Massive Knowledge in Biology: From the Worldwide Geophysical 12 months by way of the Worldwide Organic Program to the Lengthy Time period Ecological Analysis (LTER) Community, 1957–Current,” Historic Research within the Pure Sciences 40, no. 2 (2010): 187.

[4] A. N. Creager, “Radiation, Most cancers, and Mutation within the Atomic Age,” Historic Research within the Pure Sciences 45, no: 1 (2014): 14–48; M. S. Lindee, Struggling Made Actual: American Science and the Survivors at Hiroshima (Chicago, IL: College of Chicago Press, 2008).

[5] P. B. Hales, Outdoors the Gates of Eden: The Dream of America from Hiroshima to Now (Chicago, IL: College of Chicago Press, 2014), 211.

[6] Schaefer, “Medical Observations,” 386.

[7] Schaefer, “Medical Observations,” 390.

[8] P. Fowl, “Radiation Safety in Canada: Half III.* The Position of the Radiation Safety Division in Safeguarding the Well being of the Public,” Canadian Medical Affiliation Journal 90, no. 19 (1964): 1114.

[9] O. Schaefer to Ok.F. Butler, 14 Might 1964, Otto Schaefer Assortment, 2015-10-27; 09-09-46, Edmonton, AB.

[10] A. Howkins, “Appropriating house: Antarctic Imperialism and the Mentality of Settler Colonialism,” in Making Settler Colonial Area, eds. T. B Mar and P. Edmonds (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 29–52.

[11] Fowl, “Radiation Safety,” 1114.

[12] Fowl, “Radiation Safety,” 1120.

[13] For extra on the devastating well being and environmental impacts of colonially supported extractive industries, see: L. Nash, Inescapable Ecologies: A Historical past of Setting, Illness, and Data (Berkeley, CA: College of California Press, 2006); E. M Konsmo and A. Ok. Pacheco, Violence on the land, Violence on our Our bodies: Constructing an Indigenous Response to Environmental Violence (Toronto, Canada: Native Youth Sexual Assault Community, 2016); Sarah Marie Weibe, On a regular basis Publicity: Indigenous Mobilization and Environmental Justice in Canada’s Chemical Valley (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016); Michelle Murphy, “Afterlife and Decolonial Chemical Relations,” Cultural Anthropology 32, no. 4 (2017): 494–503.

This work is licensed beneath a Inventive Commons Attribution 4.0 Worldwide License.

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