Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Tall Blinking Things

Ever since I was very young, I've had a quirky attraction to tall blinking lights. There's no real reason. I just like lit masts, especially if they strobe or blink. I believe it came from the one on top of the currently-levelled CJOH studios that until 2010 sat at Merivale and Clyde. My young summers often included bike rides to the Dairy Queen at that intersection, and I was fascinated by such a tall tower - twice as much by the fact I could see it almost from anywhere thanks to its height and the red aircraft warning lights that blinked halfway up and at the top of the mast. If I got up close to the glass, I could even spot it through the trees from my bedroom window, particularly if it was windy and the trees swayed, blinking away.

Over the past year, my attention to and interest in these towers has slowly been building. There are five west of Barrhaven, and four others along rural Prince of Whales near the 416. I've always noticed the latter four thanks to drives to my grandparents, and I'd always assumed they were directional arrays for aircraft landing at the airport. Recently, I've been driving out to some of these sites - particularly cell sites - to capture an equirectangular panorama as close as possible; stereographics featuring these towers are more interesting to look at because the mast 'sticks out' from the 'planet' or 'ball' of ground in the centre.


As a result of my panoramas and notice of these eyesores that everyone else no doubt considers them to be, I've done a bit of research. For example, the one just south of Greely that utilizes a medium-density strobe at the top and middle actually transmits FM radio waves, and the frequency is 99.7. In other words, that's the broadcasting point of Boom 99.7. It's the station I've listened to since I got a car and the source of the huge diversification of my musical interests. The four and five arrays of masts south of Barrhaven have nothing to do with the airport; both are sets of AM radio masts, and because of their nature the entire tower acts as the antenna, not just the spire on top. The round things at the top are capacitor heads, which broaden the range. The four along Prince of Whales give you 680 CFRA news-talk radio; the ones just west of Barrhaven give you 1310 News. Their nighttime range is smaller than their daytime range and, interestingly, they give a directional field of broadcast.

Then there are all the cell sites, which have multiplied like crazy in the past eight or nine years. Both pictured above are cell sites. The arms pointing out at the top in different directions are literally signal arms giving a portion of the horizon a line-of-sight reception. Cell phone texts and calls travel via these towers and their range is kept to a minimum to ensure high reception (why there are so many of them, and often on top of buildings as well).

To find out all of this, I utilized a couple of websites including, to my own surprise, Wikipedia, which actually has articles on each frequency and station using it. There's a neat site that uses a map to show every cell tower in the country (and who uses it on what frequency) and a radio station transmitter site that gives you the location of the towers.
Cell site map:
http://www.ertyu.org/steven_nikkel/cancellsites.html
Radio transmitter map:
http://fmscan.org/

One more thing I want to point out is the point of notice of this stuff. The 'Boom 99.7' tower in Greely wasn't something I ever noticed before until the Strandherd-Armstrong Bridge was built and I first took the southern, back way to a friend's place. Only when I turned north on Albion did I notice it in my rearview mirror, very obviously. It looked like something was shooting into the earth from an unseen spaceship in the distance. Once I noticed that, I then immediately noticed it from every other familiar place I never used to see it from - whether it was going into Barrhaven or going to Kars or even in the Gatineau Hills. I never used to see it from anywhere until I noticed it in one certain place - then it became visible from everywhere. Perhaps it's kind of pointless to note this here, but I think it's kind of astounding considering it's always been there and obvious, yet only in a certain circumstance will it become visible to me.

There are still a few other masts that have unknown properties that I have yet to figure out - such as the double tower-thing visible on the western horizon from Greenbank or Merivale or Woodroffe. Maybe it's for TV.

Red Cloud
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