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I am Faroely Certain it’s the Microwave Radars

April 6, 2014

Sweeping westward into the Atlantic, one encounters the Faroe Islands, located between Iceland and the Shetland Islands. Since the 14th century, the Faroes have been connected politically to Denmark. When Germany invaded Demark in 1940 the British promptly occupied the archipelago which offered a few anchorages for flying boats; an airfield for wheeled aircraft had to wait until 1943. The major air force presence was in the form of radar personnel, and a disproportionate number of radar technicians overseas were members of the RCAF. Several of their stories are recounted in Canadians on Radar: Royal Canadian Air Force, 1939-1945 by George Keddie, Sheila Linden and Horace Macaulay.


WWII radar station, Eiðiskollur

Six radar sites were established in the Faroes with considerable direction from RCAF officers and non-commissioned officers. The normal tour of duty was six months, but Warrant Officer Hal Cairns served from February 1943 to February 1944. Corporal Olaf Craig Knudson of Woodstock, Ont., also had a one-year tour. Warrant Officer Clarence MacDonald arrived early in 1942 and remained until late 1943.

Gaining access to some of these sites presented a challenge. Sergeant Earl Moore recalled travelling with a party of 14 to Nolsoy Island in November 1942. Rough seas prevented them from tying up at the dock so they waded ashore with their kit and then scaled a nine-metre cliff. Their quarters—a lightkeeper’s house—was another 120 metres up, and the actual radar equipment was on a ledge that was higher still.

From their perch, the radar crews observed Allied shipping and ferry air traffic; occasionally they plotted German weather reconnaissance aircraft. The biggest enemy was wind, and it was sometimes necessary to lash down the radar arrays to a degree that hindered actual coverage. Early in 1943, Moore salvaged sheets of Plexiglas to create a “radar dome” as protection against gales.

The Faroe Islands: Some of the earliest and most famous clusters known to MS investigators are a series of alleged epidemics that occurred on the Faroe Islands, a Danish possession in the Atlantic between Norway and Iceland. Although the inhabitants are Nordic and considered a high-risk group for the disease, there were no known reports of MS prior to 1943 among native-born residents. In the early 1960s a Washington, D.C. neurologist, Dr. John Kurtzke, became intrigued with a report by a Danish investigator, K. Hyllested, about 25 cases of MS in the Faroes that had occurred starting in 1943. It appeared that the disease had been brought into the Faroes since it hadn’t been reported there before.

The most significant event that had taken place on the Faroes was the British occupation during World War II. Assuming an incubation period of a few years, this would tally with the onset of the first alleged epidemic in 1943. When researchers later grouped the cases of MS with clinical onset 1943-73 by puberty status at the time of the British occupation, they found three distinct peaks of MS incidence, corresponding to the three alleged epidemics. The first consisted of 18 cases, all of whom were past puberty at the time of the occupation. The second consisted of nine cases who were prepubertal during the occupation but who reached age 11 between 1941 and 1951, with onset of MS 1948-60. The third comprised five cases who reached age 11 between 1949 and 1963, with onset of MS 1965-73.

child with ms

Four-year-old child with multiple sclerosis. © Paul Fusco/Magnum Photos

Many of the occupation soldiers were from the Scottish Highlands, where the MS prevalence is quite high: 90 cases per 100,000, comparable to the northern U.S. In Dr. Kurtzke’s view, if MS is triggered by a virus, the disease may have been brought to the Faroes by the soldiers. Dr. Kurtzke is continuing his studies of MS in the Faroes, but despite years of intensive investigation, no factor has yet been identified that can definitively account for the alleged epidemics.


From → Biology, Geophysics

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