NORAD Maps the Flight of Santa’s Sleigh

Despite the apparent frivolity of the project, tracking Santa seems so optimistic to be linked only by a hugely strained stretch to the domain of the military, or power of the state.  Its holiday cheer is an eery echo of remote surveillance, however, if the subject is as imaginary as figure as Santa Claus, whose travels across icy skies from the North Pole by sleigh are rendered in a clumsy but ebullient graphic interface that sends us soaring in the skies.  The tracking of Santa’s flight south on Christmas Eve was rather jauntily first imagined back in the mid-1950’s, runs the inherited legend, in response to the request of a nameless child who responded to a newspaper advertisement to give Santa updates on one’s gifts.  When inverting two digits in the number unintentionally connected the child to Combat Alert Center in Colorado, who were tasked with monitored airplane flights over North America on radar, using a large glass board of the national airspaces of United States and Canada, the supervising officer is said to have been game enough to offer an update of what his team saw on the radar, and readily invited other callers to begin a tradition of the military servicemen.

The mapping project expanded online to become a collective event of observation.  Volunteers continue to man phone banks every Christmas Eve, as well as using satellite surveillance and airplane flights to inform kids about the arrival of Santa–although in ways that have dramatically expanded as a graphic interface and user experience, and offer a far greater range of modalities for monitoring Santa’s flight, satirizing the statistical fetishism and metrics of world-wide monitoring in which folks at NORAD also engage when not taking the public stage each Christmas Eve as the bearers of good will.  The use of high-tech tools of satellite tracking to embody the unseen Sleigh, in ways radar once offered, have expanded our abilities to track and give long-imagined visibility Santa’s night-time flight, with the result of promising a somewhat magical transformation rendering Santa’s flight-path in multiple modes, from a live tracking-map fixed not only on the blip of the sleigh on the screen back in 1955, to infra-red imaging mapping impulses of Rudolph’s glowing nose.

Since 2007, Santa Map have been made available by a Google-NORAD partnership which tracks the terrestrial distribution of over six billion gifts–tracking an avatar Santa’s flight by webcams and in a series of live-tracked tweets to lend a real sense of warmth by transposing child-hood geographical curiosity and wonder into the cartographical mainstream.  What could be wrong with that?   Real-time tracking of the progress of Santa’s sleigh each Christmas Eve is sufficiently heart-warming enough to erase Cold War antecedents of mapping the entry of Santa Claus into U.S. airspace.  The maps capture the chill of arctic air in ways that offer a more than welcome distraction from the increasing temptations of the renewed apocalypticism in America today, even if they echo the new prominence of remote surveillance on a global scale that seems a friendlier NSA.

Rather than perpetuate NORAD’s original conceit of helping or protecting Santa’s flight into American airspace that was hatched during a dangerous Cold War world, the collective interactive mapping of the path of Santa departing from the North Pole is after all a fun holiday cartographic interface, as a Christmas movie in which one can participate with Santa Claus’ airborne itinerary from the North Pole as he bears gifts through the world–

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Santa Leaves a Melted North Pole

–watching him arrive at any city on his path, as arriving with a bag still stuffed with goodies as his sleigh coasts past the familiar sight of the Washington Monument–

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Santa Descends to Washington, DC

The webpage that begins with a view through falling snowflakes that clear to offer better resolution on Santa’s night-time path suggests a magic of mapping the mythical by mapping a glimmer of hope:  Santa’s flight is perhaps a ridiculous thing to map, but the exactitude of mapping it is a way of making good on the sense of hope for the holiday season, and embodies our best desires even as it provides a way of ramping up expectations by state-of-the-art versions of our over-abundant mapping tools.

5.  Despite the slightly eery undertone of the surveillance of Santa in a globalized world, the tracker is a promise hard to resist:  mapping what so many kids long wished to know for one night a year–the time of Santa’s arrival–it seems to suspend the notion of global conflict for Christmas evening in an all too appealing image of world peace.  The apparatus of global satellite mapping is less emulated than it is satirized in how the North American Aerospace Defense Command have long devoted Christmas Eve have continued since 1951 to track Kris Kringle flying from chimney to chimney across national borders and continental bounds, in the most traditional emblem of global harmony, as much as can be achieved by the statistics of gifts in the process of delivery by the path of a Santa avatar, combining radar, satellites, Santa Cams and the perspective of fighter jets to trace the sleigh’s air-borne path overhead or his progress online via Google Earth.  In a world where some of our clearest spatial imaginaries are perhaps most commonly are rooted in range of cell coverage, weather, or remotely observed war, the annual mapping of Santa’s sleigh offers an odd combination of all three able to bring wonder with a bit of arctic chill.

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The easy superimposition of a GPS tracker on an image of world-view have created a sense of wonder at witnessing Santa’s progress on Christmas Eve from 1955, when the US-Canadian  Military units began to do so by radar at the hight of the Cold War.  The development from the old radar trackers to the increasing interfaces allowed by interactive maps, the North American Aerospace Defense has almost recast networks of global surveillance as pure interactive fun across a flat screen monitor–allowing us to map Santa Claus’ flight in an age where our spatial imaginaries are difficult to surprise.  And if it hardly makes much sense to speak of a military-holiday complex, the coursing views of Santa’s sleigh seem especially evocative in a decade of remotely sensed and mapped war.  The notion of tracking Santa is especially benign, especially when one adds a legend to the map to reveal that all this satellite surveillance is monitoring the giving of gifts, which, together with an avatar to display the path of a reindeer-driven sleigh, give a narrative content to the maps that have increasingly come to offer a popular collective mapping resource and combined wonder with the regular sharing of military surveillance coordinated with Christmas Eve, tapping into and generalizing a child-like sense of wonder that marks a season of giving.

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Whether we sit at home or before a flat-screen monitors that track Santa avatars in the control booth of a NORAD command center, it’s fun to act as the cartographer tracking the flight of Santa’s sleigh–or to get to play the part of a Santa tracker for a night.  And there’s a special sense of complicity in tracking Santa that’s maybe somehow similar to monitoring drone planes, were it not for the wearing of red felt Christmas hats with white pompoms and the mock-seriousness of describing the unmistakable infra-red signal that Rudolph’s nose emits after Santa appears on the radar screen, and satellites in geo-synchronous orbit some 22,300 miles from the Earth’s surface use infrared sensors to trace his path.

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Despite the familiarity of earth trackers, there’s a form of magic in the superimposition of a GPS tracking of Rudolph’s nose so bright on a base map of Earth View rekindles a sense of wonder that might temporarily mask in a war-torn world where peace is not longer so clear, and nations increasingly face with the plights of dispersed global refugees, who just don’t appear on the map.

6.  One cannot sensibly speak of a military-holiday complex–or even imagine what one would be-since the Santa Tracker overwhelms with its silly sense of fun.  But the transformation of cross-border surveillance operatiosn to show Santa’s overhead course on Christmas Eve, rendered here by a lavender line, rides the new popularity of maps to invite kids to spend the night tracking Santa avatars:  doing so isn’t only an attractive way of staving off video games.  It’s also a pretty awesome demonstration of the democracy of mapping and global tracking, if not of the fact that We Are All Cartographers, as we track Santa’s journey from our homes or warm beds, using a system of satellite tracking–instead of radar–in a virtual Santa observatory mapping bringing goodwill and delivering presents to all boys and girls, but even more compellingly assigning Santa an actual geographic route, in a triumph of the geographical imagination.

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–or, to put it in terms of a map-based search engine good only on the special evening of  December 24, as Santa gives new meaning to the “inhabited world,” if not the Christian idea of the ecumene as lands inhabited by Christian worshippers and the worldly church:

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If the global scope of cameras tracking sleigh-travel at the speed of starlight has a ring of surveillance, whose heart wouldn’t be warmed by the tracking of gifts received world-wide?  Yet nonetheless, it’s a bit spooky that what’s being surveilled is Santa, that icon of the bringer of joy, as we monitor the mystery of the arrival of gifts in a tally that seems a suitable proxy for the other truly significant digits of Christmas Eve.  What it means to bring the magical into the real or mundane may be depressing to some, but it’s wildly popular, like Pokémon GO!

7.  The broadcasting of Christmas over a large space is something to which we are used, however, in ways that move far from the North American continent to the virtual sharing of holiday well wishes worldwide.  As a cleric beside the Ottawa priest celebrating Christmas mass took photos repeatedly that seemed posted to Facebook before evening mass–either perhaps compensating from diminished parishioners seated in pews or in recognition of the possibilities of proselytization since the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission recently decided to recognize and affirm universal rights of access to broadband with unlimited data as a fundamental right.  In either case, the ritual religious celebrations of Christmas meet an increasing audience online.  (The promise of universal download speeds of at least 50Mbps and upload speeds of 10Mbps will extend over the next 10-15 years, to be guaranteed by $750 million of federal funds to ensure a standard of universal availability, would be something like a true universal Christmas gift, offering free service and bearing the promise to broadcast future masses from Nunavut to the Nova Scotia coast from the capital parish church.)

But if the remote sensing of Santa Claus’s fast-as-starlight flight as has origins in the notion that state forces would protect Santa from the dangers of enemy attack.  The protection of Santa from the soviets had it origins back in 1955, but it has wildly expanded as a mass-phenomenon of slightly different scale in an age of remote surveillance, web-maps, and video games, when the online mapping of Santa’s flight–and seems more a global spectacle of real-time tracking than a mythologizing of the air defenses of the Continent.  Back in 1955, someone in the military hit upon the somewhat genial notion that the Continental Air Defense Combat’s Operations Center assigned to protect against the possibility of a Soviet trans-polar attack on the United States might also offer Santa safe conduct from the North Pole.

Since then, however, the mapping of Santa’s delivery route has huge appeal as an X-MAS childhood past-time of Christmases past–both encouraging many kids to use mapping search engines on the holidays to find how near Santa is on his way, and expanding the uses of maps to take part in the pleasure of, well, tracking his sleigh while it was bearing gifts to kids along the US-Canada border, viewing the job of the air force to cement cross-border solidarity, and indeed create commonality in need of defense:  Santa’s path is safely protected, the safety of his clear path monitored for children by the alert and constant surveillance of NORAD.

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Back in 1955, there was an immediate appeal to a military enlisted who protected the nation from Those Who Did Not Believe in Christmas–giving Santa a remake as an icon of the Free World, if not of the Cold War, against those who might even indeed be so bad as to gun Santa down and prevent the annual arrival of gifts.  The remote sensing of Santa’s flight-path over North America has far earlier antecedents of the first radar operations, dating back of course to the Cold War, if with technologies are updated to keep up with satellite sensing abilities on a global scale, but mixed the artisanal aspects of the sleigh and the icon of the USAF in a creepy way to domesticate the timeless nature of military threats, and naturalize threats of Russian invasion across the North Pole.  Perhaps the real story is that of the refraction of childhood wonder and geographical curiosity to a far wider audience through the compelling fiction of the real-time mapping of Santa’s progress across the night-time skies–as if a sleigh traveling at the speed of starlight is tracked as it appeared on NORAD’s radar screens.

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The flight of Santa’s sleigh from the North Pole was once monitored to keep it free of anti-ballistic missiles by radar in response at the height of the Cold War.  But global monitoring of Santa’s flight by NORAD is curiously cast as a benevolent image of global surveillance for the Holiday Season, the map invites children to follow in a new collective ritual of suspending belief by vicariously watching the progress of Santa’s starlight path online, without relying on something as cheesy as a Santa SpyCam as providing the “ultimate proof” of Santa’s existence.  But such real-time mapping has also come of age in an age of satellite tracking.

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The Christmas pop soundtrack of familiar carols accompanying NORAD ‘s interactive SantaCam might be a new collective religion of the holidays.  In any event, part of the pleasure is surely that it’s placed on a strictly scientific foundation:  the tracking of Santa isn’t quite recognizable to some as a message of seasons greetings, although it is to some who are more habituated to recon satellites than to the Catholic mass, and don’t see any conflict between Santa’s satellite tracking and religion.

The tracking maps must be fun to make:   it’s hard not to smile at mock-military reports that the satellite detection “NORAD has confirmation from the missile defense agency that Santa is traveling north over Greenland:  the Space Tracking and Surveillance System, or STSS, consists of  two satellites orbiting the earth using infra-red sensors orbiting the earth as part of the ballistic intercontinental missile defense system:  but don’t worry:  the STSS knows that Santa is bearing gifts, and doesn’t classify him as a threat!”  Indeed, the maps allow us to track his progress in bearing those gifts, offering a form of big data appropriate for the holiday season of how many gifts meet all their recipients world-wide, as well as locally.  The official Santa Tracker helpfully informs its audience in quite reassuring terms to keep their interests at heart; if Santa’s arrival seems to face meteorological obstacles danger, “U.S. and Canadian defense units will steer him into the prevailing jet stream which should double his speed, and around stormy weather west of the Hudson Bay areas.”

And while originating in the North Atlantic, monitoring Santa’s global path beside a running tally of his sleigh’s speed, last sighting, and gifts delivered.  If not magical, blending the holiday spirit and the global surveillance by satellite still seems more than the slightest bit creepy in its evocation of the speed not of sleighs moving fast as starlight but, in some sense echoing the missile-delivery capacities–even when juxtaposed with a running tally of 2,231,027,576 Christmas gifts delivered and growing whose abundance increases with no clear geographical discontinuity as Santa moves from country to country, led by reindeer on his path.

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1 Comment

Filed under Christmas, globalization, mapping technologies, Satellite maps, satellite surveillance, United States Defence Meteorological Satellite Program

One response to “NORAD Maps the Flight of Santa’s Sleigh

  1. Rachel Brownstein

    Ho Ho Ho. Merry Christmas! love to all in Ottawa!

    >

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