Celebrating 50 Years of Life on MARS

Winter 2010

The McGill Arctic Research Station

In 1960, a research expedition of McGill scientists to Axel Heiberg Island, one of the most inaccessible areas of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, culminated in the establishment of the McGill Arctic Research Station (MARS) at Expedition Fiord.

Since then, McGill’s northern outpost has become one of the longest-operating seasonal field research facilities in the high Arctic, and gives scientists—from McGill and around the world—an ideal base from which to study such fields as permafrost hydrology, extreme environment biology and astrobiology.

Consisting of a small research hut, a cook house and two temporary structures, the research station is accessible from April through August and comfortably accommodates 8-12, providing access to glacier, ice cap and polar desert environments. The mean annual temperature for Expedition Fiord is about -16°C, while extreme minimums of less than -50°C have been recorded.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of MARS—and thanks to a number of improvements and renovations under the watchful eye of MARS Director and Geography Professor Wayne Pollard—the Arctic research station can look forward to at least another 50 healthy years of service.

Wayne Pollard drilling for core samples

“The 50th anniversary is important because it reflects our long-term commitment to polar research—and it’s a testament to the fact that McGill has develop a rich database of knowledge in the area,” says Pollard, who first visited MARS in 1988 on permafrost geomorphology research trip. “The McGill station represents a critical stage in Arctic science and exploration. More importantly, this has not only been sustained, but has grown.”

MARS hosts about 10 research projects each year, with about four or five people on average in each group, explains Pollard. Because of its extreme cold desert conditions, the research station has famously attracted the attention of astrobiology researchers who speculate that Axel Heiberg proves an ideal Earth-based model of how life might have evolved on Mars.

If micro organisms can survive the high Arctic, could they thrive in the harsh climate of the Red Planet? Besides McGill, recent users interested in studying this question have included the Canadian Space Agency, NASA, the SETI Institute, the Polar Continental Shelf Project, the Geological Survey of Canada, and the Canadian Museum of Nature.

An Arctic Wolf at Axel Heiberg Island

Recent renovations at MARS saw the addition of a kitchen and recreation area and solar and wind-powered weather haven structures. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the building of the initial MARS camp, Pollard is planning to host a one-day workshop at the Axel Heiberg station next summer.

“It’s a celebration of 50 years of survival in pretty tough conditions,” says Pollard.

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