Recent Canadian contributions to Antarctic research

Recent Canadian contributions to Antarctic research

Table of Contents

Life Sciences

Biota and ecosystems

Canadians have conducted biological research on Antarctic biota and ecosystems to better understand how life functions and adapts in this extreme polar environment. This research has involved living organisms in marine, ice, terrestrial, and freshwater environments including plankton, fish, birds, marine mammals and bottom-dwelling species. Canadian researchers have also investigated the effects of climate change on marine ecosystems. Key topics or research themes in which Canadian Antarctic research involvement has been strongest, based on numbers of publications, include plankton and impacts of global changes at the organism and ecosystem levels.

Physical Sciences

Permafrost, soils and landscapes

Canadians have researched the distribution and origin of ground ice (permafrost) in the Antarctic and its role in shaping landscapes. They have been instrumental in improving understanding of the distribution of permafrost in Antarctica.

Canadians have been involved in soils and soil-remediation research, including, for example, the conditions and factors that shape communities of microscopic organisms (microbes) in soils; soil chemistry; response of soil and microorganisms to pollutants and temperature increases; and the assessment of the potential to treat and remedy polluted soils. Canadians have also researched microbial life in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, which serve as an analogue for harsh extraterrestrial environments.

With respect to freshwater landscapes, Canadian Antarctic research has included investigations of perennially ice-covered lakes, use of lake sediments to reconstruct past environments and recent climate change, and river-driven landscape structure and change. Canadian researchers have also studied the effects of human activities from research stations on nearby lakes and potable water sources, which has relevance to Canada and northern development.

Other landscape changes, including the effect of weathering in cold-dry regions, and glacial and wind-driven landscape processes, have also been studied by Canadian Antarctic researchers.

Space and atmospheric physics, astronomy and astrophysics

In terms of space and atmospheric physics, Canadian researchers have examined similarities and differences between auroras, and have constructed meteor radars for middle atmospheric research in Antarctica. Canadians are operating radars and other instruments in the northern hemisphere, including in the Arctic, which complement similar radars in the southern hemisphere. Canadian researchers leverage this Arctic instrumentation to increase their access to similar Antarctic facilities, to support scientific research.

Canadian researchers have also been involved in international research efforts in the Antarctic in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics. This research aims to improve understanding of the origin, nature and evolution of the universe, and includes both ground-based observation methods, such as telescopes, as well as atmospheric instrumentation, such as balloon experiments. Canadians work on such projects as IceCube, a neutrino observatory embedded in one cubic kilometre of Antarctic ice, which is revolutionizing the way we learn about the distant sources of high energy that bombard our planet.

Atmosphere, Southern Ocean and cryosphere

Canadian climate and Southern Ocean research has included atmospheric circulation and processes, human and natural forcing of climate, and biogeochemistry and carbon cycling. Specific examples include measuring and modelling atmospheric ozone concentrations and assessing the impacts of ozone depletion and recovery on regional and global climate. Simulations of Antarctic ozone depletion, recovery and climate effects made with a Canadian model have played a prominent role in World Meteorological Organization assessments of ozone depletion, helping to inform international policy in this area.

Canadian scientists have published on the impacts of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, and other human and natural forcing agents, on the Southern Hemisphere climate. Canadian Antarctic researchers have also been involved in research on sea ice, glacier dynamics and change, carbon cycling and glacial sediments.


Geology, solid-Earth geophysics and ice sheets

The geology of East Antarctica, like the Canadian Shield, is ancient and has been stable for millennia. In contrast, West Antarctica has undergone geologically recent rifting and has active volcanoes. Canadian tectonics and volcanism research in Antarctica has included study of mineral deposits in relation to tectonic evolution, estimates of tectonic plate velocity using space geodesy, investigation of the plumbing system of the active Mount Erebus volcano, and links between volcanism and regional geological activity.

The RADARSAT Earth observation satellites represent an important Canadian contribution to Antarctic research. Since 1996 these satellites have been providing the world with an uninterrupted flow of information on Antarctic ice, consisting of high-resolution time-series SAR data as well as iconic images of the region. In June 2019 the Canadian Space Agency expanded this program with the launch of the RADARSAT Constellation Mission satellites, whose unique rotation capabilities allow daily coverage of the continent as far south as 90°S, providing a superb record of the changes occurring over the continent. The archive acquired using Canadian satellites is a unique, invaluable, and enduring source of data on Antarctic ice.

Canadian scientists have researched glacier processes, dynamics, and mass balance (the gain and loss of ice from glacier systems), including past evolution, and present and future drivers of change arising from climate variability. Canadians have investigated past climates recorded by glacial ice, subglacial processes and water systems; and potential tipping points for ice sheet stability, including the effect on thin ice shelves of warming water, which can speed up the rate at which ice moves into the oceans, raising global sea levels.

Canadian researchers are involved in a growing area of interdisciplinary research that looks at interactions between ice sheets, sea level and the solid Earth in response to past, present and future climates. When a glacier shrinks or disappears, and the pressure on the land from its enormous weight is gone, the land rises slowly in response. This is known as glacial isostatic adjustment, or postglacial rebound. Canadian geoscientists have studied Antarctic postglacial rebound to improve modelling of changes and potential feedback—changes in the land can in turn affect the behaviour of remaining glaciers—and determine its effect on ice mass balance and the contribution of the Antarctic ice sheet to sea level change.

Human and Social Sciences

Human activities in Antarctica

Human activities in Antarctica include research and related activities, as well as tourism and exploration. These have impacts beyond the region, just as human activities elsewhere in the world affect the Antarctic. Canadian researchers have expertise in Antarctic tourism, governance, and human environmental impacts. Canadians have, for example, reviewed and analyzed human activity by sector, and studied the evolution and effectiveness of regulatory and protection measures.

Canadian researchers also have expertise in Antarctic psychology. With the world’s coldest temperatures, worst weather and most isolated living conditions, Antarctica is also a natural laboratory to study how humans adapt and thrive in adverse and remote environments. With extreme temperatures, lower ambient oxygen, restricted mobility, limited access to medical care, few opportunities for entertainment—not to mention the monotony of eating, sleeping, working and spending leisure time in one place with the same people for months on end—life at an Antarctic station, especially in winter, can be both physically and psychologically challenging. Canadian psychologists have investigated the impacts on human behaviour, health, and social interaction, to understand how station personnel cope, and what countermeasures may be effective. Their studies serve as analogues for life in space stations, spacecraft, and potential future extraterrestrial bases, as well for a variety of communities in isolated and adverse environments elsewhere on Earth.

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