How to Track Santa
"Rudolph's nose does show up on the infrared spectrum"
Since 1958, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has tracked Santa Claus’s whereabouts on Christmas Eve. It originally provided real-time updates to America’s children via a hotline, and it now also maintains an online Santa Tracker. But it’s not easy to stay on top of Santa’s “achronal” movements.
We talked to NORAD’s chief Santa tracking officer about how it works.
What You’ll Learn:
Why Santa slows down over North America
The iron law Santa always follows
Why Air Force pilots escort St. Nick in American airspace
Our interviewee today, Dr. Chris Ellis, was a combat career officer for 24 years. He now serves as Chief of Future Operations at NORAD, and is an expert on individual household disaster preparedness in the United States and other developed countries.
I've got a quote here from a US Air Force memo, dated Christmas Eve 1948. ”An early warning radar net to the north detected one unidentified sleigh powered by eight reindeer at 14000 feet heading 180 degrees.”
How has the technology to track Santa changed over time? What's the state of the art?
Back in 1948, we really just had the ground-based radar systems. We hadn't put a man on the moon yet. We weren't even officially tracking Santa until 10 years later in 1958, in the height of the Cold War.
But what we refer to now as the North Warning System is a system of about 50 radars across the globe. The majority of them are in North America (Alaska and Canada) primarily to detect threats. But we have them all across the globe. So that's part A, and when we do track Santa, because he takes off from the North Pole, it's perfect, he's right within our detection zone and he pops up almost immediately in a ballistic trajectory. So thanks, Santa. I appreciate that.
For our lay readers, what’s a ballistic trajectory?
By ballistic trajectory, think missile. Anything that kind of lofts, it doesn't have to be a nice arc, but also cruise missiles or things along those lines as well. Airplanes have a not-quite ballistic trajectory.
Santa's sleigh and his reindeer work the same way. So when Santa goes to places that are far away from the North Pole, the great thing is we can pick him up in two ways by our satellites: one, just by his movements.
But he also helps us out, because Rudolph's red nose does show up on the infrared spectrum. So we can track Rudolph. When he goes around to other places, like Kenya or New Zealand, we're tracking him via those two means, and then we still maintain our satellite queuing of him when he comes across North American airspace, specifically Canada and the United States.
When he enters our air defense zone, basically he gets a personalized escort. So up in Canada, they have FA-18 Hornets that escort Santa and he'll actually slow down, because he's got to travel nearly the speed of light to hit all the kids around the world. But he'll slow down for us.
One of the things we've learned after tracking him for 68 years is that he experiences time differently, which is fascinating. That's how he's able to hit all the kids around the world. But the third way we track him is not really tracking him, but we escort him with those fighters: Canadian in Canadian airspace, and then with our Raptors or Eagles, our U.S. aircraft, when he's over the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii. [In a friend’s newsletter, Chris explained that “It is believed that A-10 Thunderbolts move too slow, even for reindeer at delivery speed. Sorry Warthog Bros.”] And then he also does visit the territories as well, so he hits Puerto Rico, he hits Guam etc., and we're around him when he's doing those things as well.
When does Santa pop up on your tracking?
The interesting thing about Santa is that he almost always takes off at the same time, usually around 6 a.m. Eastern time every December 24th. But his route does vary. He's never had the same route twice. Our assumption on that is that his naughty or nice list is different every single year, and so he follows a different pattern to hit all the good boys and girls.
I would assume that if some kids are awake at a given time, or the kids in Kenya are staying up late on a given Christmas, that he might shift around and come back later.
He does. In fact, that's one of those asynchronous things, where he experiences time differently. Again, we don't know how he does it, but one of the other rules we’ve found is that Santa does not visit a house unless the children are asleep.
Why is NORAD tracking him everywhere? There's not somebody else we can hand him off to when he's over Africa or Asia?
The biggest reason is that NORAD and NORTHCOM have a global presence. We have the geosynchronous satellites to follow him everywhere he goes, just because NORAD tracks all threats to North America, 365/24/7. While we don't classify Santa as a threat, again, he maintains that ballistic or aerial profile.
And we’re a global force, that's why we can do it. We know there are others that track him in certain areas, like the Canadian Broadcasting Company. But they don't have the global presence like we do. We're guessing that other localities and countries have their localized tracking for him, South Korea for example. But again, we're a global presence.
And that fighter escort you mentioned, is that for him? Or for our peace of mind?
I think it's a mix. For one, it's a show of solidarity. We are not intercepting him, we are escorting him. It's a friendly gesture, almost like welcoming a foreign dignitary.
And the other reason is more of my personal view, is that... these are Air Force pilots, and sometimes they're right on the borderline between naughty and nice. If you're a pilot trying to get on Santa's nice list at the last minute, escorting him may be a good way to get that final stocking stuffer.
What else do we know about Santa as a result of this once-a-year relationship?
He's exceptionally friendly. It's pretty standard in the Air Force, when you want to show a friendly maneuver saying hello, to rock your wings. And what Santa will do in return is rock his sleigh or smile.
And we do think that Santa's giving his reindeers a little bit of a break when he's flying over North America and Canada. He slows down again a bit for us. It's a pretty taxing night for St. Nick. I think it's just a show of mutual gratitude.
And what’s your involvement in tracking St. Nick?
Like Colonel Harry Shoup, who took that kid's phone call back in 1958 and started NORAD’s Santa tracking, a few times a month, I will sit in on what's called the “JOC floor.” The JOC (Joint Operations Center) floor’s motto is “We have the watch,” and we will watch live for any and all threats against North America. A few times a month, I'll sit in that job as the chief of operations and monitor all indicators, warnings, and threats against North America.
I'm picturing a NASA control room kind of situation?
Yep. Watch Matthew Broderick in WarGames or any movie that shows a military thing with all the big screens on the TV. Just think of that with a whole bunch of computers and a whole bunch of TV screens. Maybe we do watch football every once in a while if it's a slow night.
And are you pacing up and down behind guys at desks?
Sometimes. It depends on what's going on.
Okay. No cigars. You're not bright purple in the face.
I am not a screamer.
I'll just give you some facts and figures on our tracking, because I find this pretty amazing. The website itself is now in nine different languages. We get calls and website visits from the United States, from Canada, Japan, South Korea, Ireland, Australia, Chile, Spain. I'm talking in the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, and in the millions for website visits. We get over a quarter of a million phone calls every single year in just one day.
And we live-answer roughly 80,000 calls talking to kids from across the world. Obviously the overwhelming majority of our volunteers speak English. For those who don't actually get through to us, you'll get a pre recorded message of where Santa's at. But we do tell the children where Santa's at, based upon our three systems. But we’re not able to tell them if they're on the naughty or nice list.
I'll tell you that we now get about 10 million hits a year just from Amazon’s Alexa alone. You can ask “Hey Alexa, can you ask NORAD where Santa's at?” Alexa will connect to our systems and say, “Santa's located over Portugal right now” or wherever he is. So it's pretty extensive. And the roughly thousand volunteers that we have, from what I've heard, they really enjoy it.
The furthest call that I've known was someone from Morocco.
When you say you can't tell callers if they're on the naughty or nice list, is that a lack of intelligence or lack of authorization?
No, that's Santa's OPSEC right there, his operational security. He keeps that close to the chest.
Walk me through the night of Christmas Eve itself, when you’re in that operations room.
Let's say Santa is over, I don't know, Italy. So we're tracking him by satellite. And we see where he stops by, maybe he goes to Rome and maybe he's moving northward to Venice and Vicenza and on his route to Austria.
That gets relayed up to our satellites. Our satellites then come through our system. We get a ping, for lack of a better term, of where Santa's at, because, again, he's got a sleigh-and-eight-reindeer profile. So we're able to track, in near real time, exactly where he's at.
I'm curious how he covers for the kids who stayed up late. Do you see last-minute switchbacks? What’s his method?
I would call it, and this is my non-technical term, it's almost like a rubber band effect sometimes, where you're watching a movie and things speed up and go back, like when your video is buffering.
That's how Santa operates. Again, it's that “achronal time” that he's able to do outside of time. Even though children haven't gone to bed, sometimes he's able to achronally go back to a location that he's already passed. We haven't figured that out.
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Talk to me about NORAD. What do you do?
On my day job for NORAD, I am the J-35. So in the military, anything that has a 3 in it, beginning after the letter code, that's considered operations. And then the 5 are considered plans. So what I do is I'm a marriage in between the two. So the 35 is future operations. So I don't handle the right now, nor do I handle the things that are far out in the distance, but the sweet spot in the middle.
For my job, I handle four buckets. One is homeland defense. Another is civil support. So when you think of hurricanes Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Maria, that hit Puerto Rico, things along those lines, there's going to be a federal response to those kinds of events. We go there.
If you see federal forces at big things like the Super Bowl or the Boy Scout Jamboree or the Republican or Democrat National Conventions, the folks that I work with plan that and assist the lead federal agencies like the Secret Service or the Department of Energy or the Department of Agriculture or FEMA, whoever is leading that.
Then three, I do a lot of interagency work, because the Department of Defense is not in the lead once we're in the homeland. We look at the gates and the borders and out. So if there's something like a threat to the homeland, or like a flyover for the Super Bowl, we are following another entity. So I do a lot of interagency work.
The last thing I do is quite a bit of the integration of training and exercises. We’re making sure our swords and our spears are always sharp. We need a tremendous amount of repetition on those things.
As a non-military guy, it’s surprising to me that you're housed in NORAD doing all these tasks.
So NORAD and NORTHCOM are two different commands. NORAD is a bi-national command, both the United States and Canada. It’s older than NORTHCOM is: it’s been around since the Cold War. But it's a lot of pilots from the Canadian and the U.S. side, mostly Air Force folks. I wear both the NORAD and NORTHCOM hat, and NORAD’s hat number one. When I sit in down in the JOC, my day job is NORTHCOM. It was stood up after 9/11 to cover everything else besides the air domain.
We have a little bit of the air domain as well, but we track all threats across all domains in NORTHCOM. So anything you can think of will route or at least coordinate through us in some way, shape, or form.
Was that function covered before 9/11?
If you remember when they did the 9/11 commission, they said there's this wall in between the intelligence agencies, we have some gaps. So the mission itself was overall covered, but in a lot of different silos. And so NORTHCOM put everything in the military portion and then married it with NORAD, so that one commander, General VanHerck, who's our current commander right now of both NORTHCOM and NORAD, would have oversight over all things.
So when you're doing stuff alongside FEMA for emergency response, that's in your NORTHCOM role.
Absolutely. 100%. And what FEMA will do is, for example, there was this earthquake in the winter. There's an immediate need for power generators so people don't freeze to death, or tents, or search and rescue, or military working dogs to search for survivors. FEMA goes, “Hey, US military. We know you have a lot of those things. Can you help us out?” It goes through the whole process of wickets, gets approved by the Secretary of Defense and then comes to us to adjudicate who that's going to go to.
Chris, you're a researcher in much of your career. Are you trying to better understand the nature of the relationship between time and space through this tracking?
That's probably something for our more technical folks, but we got a lot of wicked smart people. We are co-located with SPACECOM, just the building next to us, so I probably have to go bug them and see what they're doing for those kinds of things. But we're more focused on the more mundane threats, potential adversaries.
Santa, while fun, is not our primary research focus.
You guys are mission oriented.
How long have you been at NORAD?
I just got here this summer, but I plan on being here for a few years and I've been trying to get here for 10 years. I absolutely love this job.
And of the hats you wear, which have you worn the longest?
The future operations hat, but I do what's called the pro shifting of the chief of operations. So I do more of the future operations as far as my day to day, or month to month, but I've worn both hats for the same amount of time.
As you’ve worked on future operations, how have you improved over time? What do you do now that you weren't doing five years ago?
My passion for about 25 years has been disaster. The past 8-10 years, I've gotten to focus on it more professionally through the military. They sent me back to graduate school several times.
So that's been exceptionally personally and professionally rewarding. And what I truly enjoy about my current job is the number of individuals that are absolutely fanatically dedicated to what they do. My crew here is one of the best, if not the best. I sit down with them on a regular basis, thinking that I know a pretty good bit about homeland defense and disaster since that is my baseline in academics and college degrees, and finding there's just so much more to learn. It's like being at a hospital and you might be the leading hematologist, which is great, but you've got dentists and podiatrists and cancer specialists and heart surgeons, etc. You're just learning all the time.
Give me one more example of the disaster work you do.
So one of the things I'm focused on right now, and so is the Department of Defense, is this concept of resiliency. When FEMA talks about a tiered response, it basically means that when a disaster strikes, you're your own first responder, then your neighbors and local fire department etc., then the county, then the state, then the federal government. FEMA is really focused on the individual having this culture of preparedness: You're your own first responders. If a disaster strikes, either natural or man-made, How are we going to bounce back? How are we going to get up? How are we going to maintain the fight if we need to maintain the fight or provide support and resources to the American people?
If it's a hailstorm or a mudslide or a tornado or a hurricane, because a lot of times those things hit our bases. I'll give you one example of this: Typhoon Mawar hit Guam earlier this year. That's in INDOPACOM (India-Pacific Command’s area) but it was very instructive because we have a lot of military assets there and there was this Category 5 super typhoon that landed a near-direct hit against a very small island, similar to what happened with Puerto Rico.
That base, that island needs to be exceptionally resilient to disasters of that type, but not exclusively natural disasters. North Korea has threatened Guam in the past with nuclear rhetoric. They threatened Guam in public statements all the way back to the Trump administration.
So there's a lot of threats, natural and man-made, that the Department of Defense needs to be resilient against.
I once heard someone ask you about the single most important thing you need in the toolkit from a resiliency perspective. Would you fill in our readers?
Absolutely. A guy named Josh Centers said it on Twitter, in a way that didn't come across the right way at first, but he was right as far as his philosophy. He said the best thing you need to have for disasters is a positive mental attitude. That is accurate, but I would add what you also need to have is a good community.
You're statistically far more likely to be rescued by your neighbors than by anybody wearing a uniform, federal or local. It doesn't matter. Having that rich community with your neighbors is not foolproof. But if you're looking to do just one or two things: have a good attitude and have good neighbors.
You can call 1 877 HI-NORAD (1 877 446-6723) on Christmas Eve to receive a real-time tracking update of Santa’s location. NORAD’s online Santa Tracker is linked here and goes live on Christmas Eve.