Dazzling and Dangerous: Epidemics, Space Physics, and Settler Understandings of the Aurora Borealis

“Northern Lights” by Image Editor is licensed under CC BY 2.0

By Jennifer Fraser and Noah Stemeroff

Earlier this year, Explore, a multimedia company that operates the largest live nature camera network on the planet, noticed that one of its livestreams was going viral. The feed in question broadcasts from Churchill, Manitoba. Positioned directly beneath the auroral oval, this camera offers viewers a chance to catch a glimpse of the spectacular auroral displays that grace the city’s skyline nearly three hundred days of every year. The burgeoning popularity of this live cam is a direct consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the midst of rising coronavirus case numbers, Churchill’s camera footage was also experiencing exponential growth, attracting hundreds of thousands of new viewers every month. When asked why their livestream was so popular, Explore executives hypothesized that it was due, in part, to the restorative powers of nature [1]. In their minds, their northern lights footage was more than just a fun form of lockdown entertainment. Rather, it was also serving a therapeutic function. As airlines were grounding their planes, countries were closing their borders, and people around the world were being ordered indoors, Explore’s northern camera footage provided viewers with a safe means of connecting to the environment and tapping into its many physical and mental health benefits.

Over the course of 2020, more than 4.1 million people have logged onto Explore’s Northern Lights Cam. Although there is something distinctly 2020 about our mobilization of the northern lights as a means of combatting our collective cabin fever, the coronavirus pandemic is not the first time that the aurora borealis has been leveraged as a public health resource. In fact, the notion that the northern lights could have real and palpable health effects can be traced all the way back to 1950s Canada with the work of Otto Schaefer. This German-Canadian physician also saw the northern lights as playing an integral role in combatting disease—particularly in the fight against cancer—another disease that had, in the context of the mid-twentieth century, reached epidemic status.

To show how medical ideas about the northern lights have evolved over time, this short essay reflects on Schaefer’s Arctic cancer research and its long-term ramifications. In some ways, Schaefer was ahead of his time. Even before the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson’s highly influential Silent Spring, Schaefer was taking an active interest in environmental cancer research. However, his work in this area also functioned as a mode of settler statecraft. By contextualizing Schaefer’s ideas about cancer and the northern lights, and highlighting their intersections with contemporaneous developments in atmospheric physics, nuclear weapons testing, and the environmental justice movement, we hope to not only show how northern lands, bodies, and skylines have served as important sites of scientific knowledge production, but also how present-day understandings of the public health value of the northern lights need to be seen as part of a larger history of asymmetrical power relations, ongoing environmental degradation, and longstanding efforts to disrupt Indigenous people’s rights and relationships to land.

Originally born in Germany, Otto Schaefer immigrated to Canada in the early 1950s to take up a position as a medical officer for the Canadian federal government’s Department of Indian and Northern Health Services (IHS). This role took him to a number of remote northern settlements in the Central and Eastern Arctic, where he would live and provide medical assistance to their Inuit residents. Although his interest in the northern lights was, initially, purely cosmetic (as an amateur photographer, he would often spend long periods of time trying to photograph this spectacular natural light show), he would eventually develop an interest in them as a medical phenomenon (Figure 1). This was because, over the course of his tenure as an IHS physician, Schaefer began to notice that some Inuit communities with the best views of the northern lights also seemed to be disproportionately affected by cancer. He started to wonder if this natural phenomenon might be somehow responsible for this unique epidemiological pattern [2].

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

Perhaps more than anything else, Schaefer’s ideas about cancer and the northern lights were predicated on atmospheric research coming out of the International Geophysical Year (IGY). Taking place in 1958, the IGY was an international scientific project directed towards the systematic study of the Earth and its planetary environment [3]. In addition to promoting research in a number of different fields, including meteorology and oceanography, a key feature of the IGY was uncovering the mechanisms underpinning auroral displays—a natural phenomenon that had long mystified scientists. To find out what was causing the northern lights, space scientists from all over the world carried out an array of upper atmosphere rocket and satellite studies. Through these studies, scientists discovered that the northern lights were caused by electrically charged particles from solar winds that had become trapped in the magnetosphere by a series of belt-like formations surrounding the earth (now known as the Van Allen radiation belts). At the poles, these particles interact with the earth’s upper atmosphere, producing electromagnetic radiation. According to these researchers, it was this radiation that was the source of the aurora borealis’ characteristic bands of green, red, and blue light.

The idea that the northern lights were, essentially, visible manifestations of radiation energy seems to have been the driving force behind Schaefer’s concern about their impact on human health. Although forms of high-energy radiation had long served as an important cancer therapy, their relationship to malignant disease had increasingly come under fire as a result of a series of research studies carried out in the wake of the Second World War, including a long-term study carried out by the US Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission which found that the incidence of leukemia among Hiroshima and Nagasaki bomb survivors was more than 600 times that of the general population [4]. Schaefer’s views on the subject seem to have also been compounded by Cold War atomic weapons testing, including the 1962 high-altitude test known as Starfish Prime, which resulted in a massive man-made light show, producing an artificial aurora that could be seen across the Pacific Ocean from Hawaii to New Zealand [5]. This suborbital nuclear detonation lent support to the idea that the northern lights may, indeed, contain high-energy radiation. It also imbued them with a sense of danger—as many members of the general public began to associate auroras with the nuclear arms race and the acute and latent health effects of atomic weaponry.

The discovery that the northern lights were caused by a form of radiation emission, combined with the knowledge that some forms of high-energy radiation (and radioactive materials) were potentially cancer-causing, primed Schaefer to connect these contemporaneous discoveries to his own medical observations and fieldwork in the South Central Arctic. He communicated these views to the wider medical community in a series of Canadian Medical Association Journal articles in the late 1950s and early 1960s, where he drew attention to the high rates of cancer observed in some Inuit communities as well as the northern lights’ potential “unknown radioactive (?) or biological (?) effects.” Although he acknowledged that these ideas were based on “very questionable evidence, indeed,” he believed that this correlation was compelling enough to warrant further investigation [6].

Part of Schaefer’s motivation for sharing this theory stemmed from his belief that understanding the relationship between cancer and auroral activity was not just professionally interesting, but practically important as well. During the mid-twentieth century, cancer was still very much a mystery to medical professionals. There was very little consensus on what the factors underpinning the disease were, and how they could best be prevented. Schaefer believed that if his hunch was correct, it could provide valuable insight into cancer’s underlying etiology—information that could not only decode the disease’s global increase, but also be mobilized in the development of better methods of prevention and treatment. Schaefer also believed that his northern lights observations could protect Canadian military and economic interests. This is because the northern lights not only posed a potential health risk to Inuit, but also to the non-Indigenous laborers, researchers, and military personnel that were increasingly stationed in the North as a result of Cold War militarization and the growth of Canadian mining and other forms of resource extraction [7]. Although Schaefer’s calls for further research into the health impacts of auroral activity seem to have gone largely unheeded by other Canadian physicians, his ideas would be taken up by the Canadian government and would go on to shape how they would approach environmental causes of cancer, particularly within Arctic settings.

In the early 1960s, P. M. Bird, the Chief of the Radiation Protection Section of the Canadian Department of National Health and Welfare launched a nationwide fallout study program designed to detect levels of strontium 90, cesium 137, and zirconium 95 in air, precipitation, soil, and human bone samples obtained from a number of northern communities [8]. Upon learning of the study, Schaefer quickly reached out to Bird to ask if he had considered the possibility that strontium 90 and cesium 137 were not just by-products of atomic blasts, but consequences of the “solar explosions accompanying naturally occurring auroral phenomena.” [9]

In viewing cancer as a byproduct of environmental exposures, Schaefer’s northern lights theories may appear progressive—especially by the standards of his time. However, these ideas are difficult to disentangle from their settler colonial context. Not only was Schaefer in Inuit communities as a state representative, but his medical theories were largely predicated on scientific discoveries made during the IGY, an initiative which capitalized on the knowledge and resources of polar places, people, and airspaces [10]. Furthermore, his promulgation of these theories was also intimately tied to Canada’s military-industrial complex and ongoing efforts to facilitate and legitimize the nation’s extractive economy. Perhaps more importantly, though, by attributing the high rates of cancer experienced by Inuit to “naturally occurring” radiation, as opposed to radioactive fallout, Schaefer’s ideas served to detract from the systemic ecological suffering of Indigenous communities perpetuated by settler state policies.

Bird’s fallout study ultimately concluded that levels of radioactive isotopes found in Inuit men and women were below the maximum permissible body burden, and thus did not seem to constitute a significant health risk [11]. However, his final report also stated that he could not discount the impact that other forms of radiation might be having on human health, such as “radiation from cosmic rays, terrestrial radioactivity of natural origin and natural radioactivity in the body” that appeared to affect “certain areas of the country” more than others [12]. Although Bird never cites Schaefer directly, his invocation of “cosmic rays” and “background radiation” seems to have come from his suggestion for his division to explore the relationship between Inuit cancer rates and “naturally occurring” radiation in the Earth’s atmosphere.

This “naturalization” of Inuit cancer rates would come to define how cases of chronic disease would be understood and addressed by Canadian policy makers and healthcare professionals. During the 1970s and 1980s, most epidemiological research coming out of Canada tended to undermine Indigenous-led calls for environmental protection by explaining the high rates of cancer observed in Inuit communities in terms of genetics, lifestyle, or acculturation, instead of engaging with the very real health consequences of atomic weapons testing, the storage of nuclear waste, chemical manufacturing, and the environmental consequences of northern mining and metallurgical enterprises [13]. Thus, by attributing northern cancer rates to “natural” or “background” causes, Schaefer’s theories served to minimize the embodied and environmental harm perpetuated by settler colonial practices and policies, and absolve the federal government from taking any sort of responsibility for them.

In addition to being predicated on, and contributing to, ongoing settler efforts to subjugate Indigenous lands and peoples, Schaefer’s ideas would also pave the way for future attempts to frame the northern lights as a valuable medical resource. Although the purported mental health benefits of Explore’s new northern lights live stream is, admittedly, very far removed from Schaefer’s mid-twentieth century cancer research program, placing this new live feed in this larger genealogy can help us understand how and why the north has come to function as a useful health resource, particularly in times of epidemiological crisis.

While tuning in to Explore’s new northern camera footage certainly offers a welcome reprieve from all of the stresses and anxieties of 2020, Schaefer’s story invites us to think more critically about where ideas of the northern lights as a therapeutic agent came from, and who exactly they have been serving. As we can see from the popularity of Explore’s Churchill live cam, northern settings and airspaces continue to operate as key reservoirs of medical knowledge. However, as we have also seen, this knowledge does not always extend to the individuals and settings involved in its production.


Endnotes

[1] D. Nelson, “Stream the Northern Lights From Your Home Tonight (and Every Night),” Thrillist, 27 March 2020.

[2] O. Schaefer, “Medical Observations and Problems in the Canadian Arctic: Part II,” Canadian Medical Association Journal 81, no. 5 (1959): 386. Schaefer’s interest in this epidemiological anomaly came to a head in the late 1950s during a routine visit to Arviat, a predominantly Inuit hamlet located on the Western shores of Hudson Bay—just 260km north of where Explore’s Churchill camera currently broadcasts from.

[3] E. Aronova, K. S. Baker, and N. Oreskes, N, “Big Science and Big Data in Biology: From the International Geophysical Year through the International Biological Program to the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network, 1957–Present,” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 40, no. 2 (2010): 187.

[4] A. N. Creager, “Radiation, Cancer, and Mutation in the Atomic Age,” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 45, no: 1 (2014): 14–48; M. S. Lindee, Suffering Made Real: American Science and the Survivors at Hiroshima (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

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

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

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

[8] P. Bird, “Radiation Protection in Canada: Part III.* The Role of the Radiation Protection Division in Safeguarding the Health of the Public,” Canadian Medical Association Journal 90, no. 19 (1964): 1114.

[9] O. Schaefer to K.F. Butler, 14 May 1964, Otto Schaefer Collection, 2015-10-27; 09-09-46, Edmonton, AB.

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

[11] Bird, “Radiation Protection,” 1114.

[12] Bird, “Radiation Protection,” 1120.

[13] For more on the devastating health and environmental impacts of colonially supported extractive industries, see: L. Nash, Inescapable Ecologies: A History of Environment, Disease, and Knowledge (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006); E. M Konsmo and A. K. Pacheco, Violence on the land, Violence on our Bodies: Building an Indigenous Response to Environmental Violence (Toronto, Canada: Native Youth Sexual Assault Network, 2016); Sarah Marie Weibe, Everyday Exposure: 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 under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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