A Review of the Importance of Antarctic Research in Canada

By: Ann Balasubramaniam

The significance of Antarctic science to Canada

The Antarctic, protected by international treaty for “peace and science”, comprises one-sixth of the planet occupying nearly 14 million km2 of landmass south of 60 degrees latitude1, 2. This cold, and predominantly ice-covered continent has provided some important scientific insights over time. For example, data collected by pioneering Canadian scientists such as physicist and glaciologist Charles Seymour Wright, (Britain’s Terra Nova Expedition, 1920-1913), and geologist Fred Roots, (Norwegian-British-Swedish Expedition of 1949-52), collected data instrumental to understanding global plate tectonics and past migrations of continents3. In addition, during the mid-1980s, measurements of ozone in Antarctica led to greater understanding of the extent of global ozone losses. This precipitated the Montreal Protocol, which inspired nations to work together to decrease the production of ozone-depleting substances4. Although the extraordinary value of the Antarctic region to national and international science programs is undeniable, Canada does not yet have a national Antarctic research program.

Today, the Antarctic region continues to be an important subject of focus for Canadian and international researchers. Over 150 researchers from across Canada have pursued research in Antarctica, on a wide range of subjects such as earth observation; marine and freshwater biology; geology; ice dynamics; and human psychology5,6. These researchers come from 14 different universities, four distinct government agencies, and independent research-focused organizations. Research on glacial change, ocean currents, sediment-cores, ice-cores, and biotic communities within the Antarctic region has proven to be invaluable to comprehending global systems and climate change effects6,7. Understanding factors affecting greenhouse gasses, bipolar linkages of ocean and atmospheric circulation, and the Antarctic region’s role in sea-level rise are fundamental to refining scientific understanding of climate change1, 11. The global importance of these issues was highlighted in 2014 in the results of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research’s Horizon Scan which identified the most pressing Antarctic and Southern Ocean research questions as determined by the international polar research community12. Certainly for Canada, a nation experiencing rapid warming in its Arctic regions and vulnerable to sea-level rise due to significant economic and public investments along its coastline, engaging in such Antarctic research will increase national capacity to anticipate the effects of southern processes on our northern ecosystems. Moreover, the expertise Canadian researchers have developed studying the Canadian Arctic may lead to unique insights, and facilitate bipolar comparisons1.

The IceCube neutrino observatory is an example of Antarctic research in which Canadian researchers participate (photo Steve Lindstrom, IceCube, NSF)
The IceCube neutrino observatory is an example of Antarctic research in which Canadian researchers participate (photo Steve Lindstrom, IceCube, NSF)

Canada’s national role in Antarctic science and governance

In Antarctica, science is heavily intertwined with governance, and acts as a type of currency influencing how nations interact and express their interests in the continent11. The Antarctic Treaty System (ATS), developed in the wake of International Geophysical Year 1957-58 (IGY), forms the collaborative governance structure of the Antarctic region1. In 1988, Canada became the 38th country to sign the Antarctic Treaty as a non-consultative, thus non-voting, member2. Since then, the Government of Canada signed the Convention on Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) as a cooperating party11 , ratified the Madrid Protocol in 2003, and enacted the Antarctic Environmental Protection Act11. Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) is responsible for regulating the activities of Canadians operating in the Antarctic under this Act. Additionally, via Polar Knowledge Canada’s predecessor, the Canadian Polar Commission, Canada joined the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), which facilitates international collaboration in Antarctic research programs. It also formed the Canadian Committee on Antarctic Research (CCAR) to advise on Antarctic matters1,11. Representatives from Polar Knowledge Canada (POLAR) and ECCC attend the annual Antarctic Treaty Consultative meeting to contribute to Antarctic governance related discussions that take place, many of which relate to science and environmental management.

Issues and future directions

Despite the active participation of Canadian scientists in Antarctic research via the national programs of other countries, with non-consultative status the Government of Canada cannot vote on important Antarctic governance decisions. To obtain consultative status, Canada would need to conduct substantial scientific research activity there, such as establishing a scientific research station or dispatching a scientific expedition, 11Additionally, the lack of a national Antarctic program is a missed opportunity to support and foster the existing national scientific expertise in the region2. A national Antarctic Research Program will not only allow better coordination of Canadian Antarctic researchers, but will also enable them to apply their expertise in the Antarctic while focussing on priority areas of interest to Canada.

In response to these issues, Polar Knowledge aims to develop a Canadian Antarctic Research Program with advice and guidance from CCAR1,11. POLAR has been consulting Canadian researchers to determine national Antarctic research priorities. Additionally, due to the significant interest among the international polar research community in conducting research in Canada’s Arctic, POLAR has also been actively working with international partners to strengthen existing partnerships and increase scientific cooperation in the polar regions. Indeed, there is an unprecedented opportunity to attract and leverage investments from international polar research institutions, especially with the Canadian High Arctic Research Station, which will be operational in 2017, to support the development of a Canadian Antarctic Research Program. Undeniably, the establishment of a Canadian program would not only bolster Canada’s national capacity and reputation in bipolar research, but would also support an application for consultative status to participate as a voting member in ATCMs and ensure that Canada can participate in decision-making regarding important Antarctic matters of global significance11.


  1. (1) Canadian Committee for Antarctic Research. 2002. Antarctic Science and Bipolar Linkages: Strategy for Canada. Accessed online: http://www.polarcom.gc.ca/uploads/Antarctic%20Publications/Antarctic%20Science.pdf
  2. (2) Loken, O. 1996. Canadian Antarctic Research Program. Canadian Center for Foreign Policy Development.  Accessed online: http://dfait-aeci.canadiana.ca/view/ooe.b3765052/1?r=0&s=1
  3. (3) Scott Polar Research Institute website: Norwegian-British-Swedish Antarctic Expedition, 1949-1952.  Accessed online: http://www.spri.cam.ac.uk/resources/expeditions/nbsx/.
  4. (4) Statistics Canada.  Case Study: Ozone layer depletion and the Montreal Protocol.  Accessed online: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/edu/power-pouvoir/ch5/casestudy-edudedecas/5214797-eng.htm
  5. (5) Ommanney,S. 2005. Annual Report on National Antarctic Scientific Activities Contributing to SCAR Programme Activities. Canadian Polar Commission documents. Accessed online : http://www.polarcom.gc.ca/uploads/Antarctic%20Publications/SCAR.pdf
  6. (6) Simon, C. and Ommanney, L. 2010. Scientists affiliated with Canadian institutions having expertise or interests in Antarctica. Report for the Canadian Committee on Antarctic Research.
  7. (7) Committee on Future Science Opportunities in Antarctic and Southern Ocean. 2011. Future Science Opportunities in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. National Academy of Sciences Report in Brief. Accessed online: http://www.nsf.gov/geo/plr/usap_special_review/usap_brp/mtg_docs/nov2011/presentations/nrc_ant_rpt_smmry.pdf
  8. (8) Indermuhle A.,  Stocker T.F., Joos F., Fischer H., Smith H.J., Wahlen M., Deck B., Mastroianni D., Tschumi J., Blunier T., Meyer R., and Stauffer B. 1999. Holocene carbon-cycle dynamics based on CO2 trapped in ice at Taylor Dome, Antarctica. Nature, 398:121-126.
  9. (9) Rohling E.J., Grant K., Bolshaw M., Roberts A.P., Siddall M., Hemleben ch., and Kucera M. 2009. Antarctic temperature and global sea level closely coupled over the past five glacial cycles. Nature Geoscience 2: 500-504
  10. (10) EPICA Community Members. 2006. One-to-one coupling of glacial climate variability in Greenland and Antarctica.  Nature. 444(7116):195-198.  Accessed online: http://epic.awi.de/33179/1/2006epica_n.pdf
  11. (11) Polar Connections: Planning Canadian Antarctic Research. 2004. A report of an International Workshop. University of Alberta, Alberta, Canada.Eds: O.H. Loken, N.J. Couture and W.H. Pollard.  Accessed online: http://www.polarcom.gc.ca/uploads/Antarctic%20Publications/Polar%20Connections.pdf
  12. (12) Kennicutt M.C.,  Chown S.L., Cassano J.J., Liggett D., Massom, R., Peck L.S., Rintoul S.R., Storey J.W.V.  Vaughn D.G., Wilson T.J., and Sutherland W.J. 2014. Polar research: Six priorities for Antarctic science. Nature 512: 23-25. doi: 10.1038/512023a. Accessed at: http://www.nature.com/news/polar-research-six-priorities-for-antarctic-science-1.15658
  13. (13) Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 2005. National Plan of Action on Illegal Unreported and Unregulated Fishing (NPOA-IUU). Accessed online: http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/npoa-pan/npoa-iuu-eng.htm
  14. (14) Natural Resources Canada. 2015. Arctic Logistics Requests.  Accessed online: http://www.nrcan.gc.ca/the-north/polar-continental-shelf-program/arctic-logistics-requests/9991

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