Why is the Antarctic important to Canada?

DC-3 aircraft in Antarctica

Many international research programs count on Canadian expertise for transportation and equipment. Here is a Canadian-operated turbo DC-3 aircraft and a Skidoo at an Antarctic research camp.

Credit: NSF-Bill Meurer

Canadians who look closely at the map of Antarctica might find some oddly familiar place names. There's a Beaver Lake, for instance; a Bombardier Glacier; and a Skidoo Nunatak. These places—and over a hundred others—bear witness to Canada's connection with the frozen continent. That's because, for over a century, Canadians have been contributing to Antarctic exploration and research. Why has Canada taken such an interest in this remote place at the bottom of the world?

It's partly because Antarctica and the Arctic have some similarities. Both are cold, extreme environments, and Canadian arctic expertise transfers easily to Antarctica.

For over a century Canadians have been contributing to Antarctic exploration and research.

Antarctic research can bring new insights into Arctic issues. For example, studies on cold climate technology and environmental monitoring techniques, persistent organic pollutants, invasive species, the effects of climate warming permafrost and glaciers, and the environmental effects of cruise-ship tourism on the environment are relevant to both polar regions.

Many international research programs operating in Antarctica value the knowledge of Canadian arctic scientists, as well as the specialized services that Canadian aircraft operators and providers of cold-weather equipment have been providing to them for decades.

The two polar regions also have important differences. Unlike the Arctic, most of Antarctica's land, and the sea along its coast, lie under ice that is several kilometres thick. Antarctica is also colder and harsher than the Arctic, with winter temperatures that can average around -60°C, and frequent violent winds.

While the Arctic tundra boasts a rich diversity of plants and animals, including iconic mammals like caribou and muskox, it takes a trained eye to spot the tough little creatures that make their homes on Antarctica's freeze-dried landscape. They live in ice-free areas, and one of the largest is the springtail, or snow flea. A dozen of these could fit on your fingernail with room to spare.

On the other hand, the waters of the Southern Ocean, which surrounds Antarctica, are some of the world's richest, with far more marine life than the Arctic Ocean. Strong currents and upwelling of deep, cold waters pump in vast amounts of nutrients, a banquet for everything from microscopic algae to krill, fish, penguins and other sea birds, seals, and many kinds of whales.

While humans have lived in the Arctic for millennia, no one has ever lived permanently in Antarctica. Polynesian traditional knowledge records occasional visits for hunting; by the 19th century people began visiting the area more regularly to explore, fish and hunt whales commercially, and do research.

The Antarctic peninsula is among the most rapidly warming regions on Earth, and as ice from this area moves into the ocean at an accelerating rate it contributes to the rising global sea levels.

Much of Antarctic research today looks at how the region influences Earth's climate, and how changes there affect the rest of the planet. Nutrients from the Southern Ocean ride ocean currents to marine ecosystems around the world, feeding all manner of marine life, and supporting fisheries. The Southern Ocean absorbs most of the carbon dioxide emissions that human activities produce. The Antarctic peninsula is among the most rapidly warming regions on Earth, and as ice from this area moves at an accelerating rate into the ocean, it is contributing to rising global sea levels. Knowing in detail how these processes work and change over time is essential for predicting the future of the global climate and the effects of climate change—and there is more to learn.

Most Canadian Antarctic researchers collaborate with international partners, most often with research teams from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, France, and others.

Research is the main activity in Antarctica—and research gave rise to its unique system of governance, the Antarctic Treaty. Spearheaded by international scientists and signed in 1959 by twelve countries, the Treaty overcame cold war tensions to establish Antarctica as a haven for peace and science, where military and industrial activity is prohibited. The Antarctic Treaty System, as it is now known, includes international protocols that protect Antarctic environments, its membership has grown to over 50 countries. Canada has been a non-consultative member since 1988.

Research is the main activity in Antarctica—and research gave rise to its unique system of governance, the Antarctic Treaty. Spearheaded by international scientists and signed in 1959 by twelve countries, the Treaty overcame cold war tensions to establish Antarctica as a haven for peace and science, where military and industrial activity is prohibited.

Polar Knowledge Canada has an Antarctic mandate, and guided by its Canadian Committee on Antarctic Research, has developed a Canadian Antarctic research program. The Canadian Antarctic Research Program builds on Canada's solid foundation of Antarctic contributions. It will enable Canada's Antarctic researchers to intensify their work, operating through partnerships with the national polar programs of other countries, and bringing home new insights relevant to the Arctic. Our researchers will work, as they always have, in a spirit of international cooperation and collaboration inspired by shared responsibilities to protect the environment—and the future of the planet.

A few of the 104 Antarctic place names with a Canadian connection

Fred Cirque — named after Ernest Frederick Roots, chief geologist on the Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition of 1949-52. Fred's record of 190 days for an unsupported dog sled journey across the continent still stands. And he was instrumental in supporting Canada's contributions to Antarctic science in the Antarctic Treaty over many decades.There are two more places in Antarctica named after him.

Bombardier Glacier — named after Joseph-Armand Bombardier, snowmobile engineer

Beaver Lake — named by the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions after their Canadian de Havilland Beaver aircraft. The Beaver is Canada's most famous bush plane.

Toomey Strait — named after Patrick R.M. Toomey, retired Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker captain, ice navigation specialist, author, and public speaker

Skidoo Nunatak — named after the Canadian snowmobile. A Nunatak is a mountain peak sticking out of a glacier or ice shelf. It's an Inuktitut word.

Polar Knowledge Canada

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