Scientist who linked Nunavut water to Mars exploration wins lifetime award

Scientists looking for water on other planets may learn from a researcher who’s spent 40 years studying permafrost in Canada’s Arctic.

Wayne Pollard has won the $100K Weston Family Prize in northern science

Wayne Pollard has won a lifetime achievement award from the W. Garfield Weston Foundation for his contribution to northern research. (Submitted by Wayne Pollard)

Scientists looking for water on other planets may learn from an award-winning researcher who's spent 40 years studying permafrost in Canada's Arctic.

Wayne Pollard has won a lifetime achievement award from the W. Garfield Weston Foundation for his contribution to northern research, which could help NASA and the Canadian Space Agency identify water on colder planets like Mars. 

Pollard, a geography professor at McGill University, was the first scientist to investigate "perennial springs" in High Arctic polar deserts, according to a news release from Weston. 

He works out of McGill's Arctic Research Station on Axel Heiberg Island, just below Ellesmere Island, in Nunavut. 

Near the station, he found springs of super salty water that stay liquid well below water's standard freezing temperature because of their high salt content. 

"People looking for water on Mars should be looking for certain types of salt deposits," Pollard said. He published a paper demonstrating how that could work last year. 

These groundwater springs flowing up through the permafrost to the surface do eventually freeze — at a temperature around –20 degrees C — and when they do, highly unstable minerals composed of both salt and water are formed, Pollard said. 

The "very unusual" minerals have "tremendous implications for research on Mars," Pollard said, as they give scientists at NASA a potential indicator of water. 

Pollard was the first to systematically study the phenomena of perennial springs in High Arctic polar deserts. His work revealed liquid water can flow freely below freezing temperatures. (Submitted by Wayne Pollard)

Pollard also contributed to innovations in technologies that could be used in space. 

His team worked with the Canadian Space Agency on developing a ground-penetrating radar that could give information on what was happening underground without digging below the surface and be attached to a lunar rover. 

Award comes with $100K

Pollard will accept the Weston Family Prize at the ArcticNet conference in Halifax on Thursday. 

Half of the $100,000 award funds a research fellowship position. 

Pollard hopes to use the other $50,000 to work with the government of Nunavut on protecting all — or parts of — Axel Heiberg Island from resource extraction as a nature preserve. 

"It has so many unique features. I mean, I'm sure you're familiar with the fossil forest that's there. I've been doing work on the perennial springs ... It's got the longest record of Alpine glaciation in the world," Pollard said. 

Springs in the High Arctic can be saturated with salt, which brings their freezing temperatures down to around -20 degrees C. (Submitted by Wayne Pollard)

The McGill Arctic research station was started on the island in the 1950s and Pollard said the station collected more than 50 years of data on the island's ice cap. 

He said he'd like to hire a northerner in the fellowship position to help him start his talks with Nunavut's government. Pollard said plans are still in very early stages, as he hasn't reached out to the government yet. 

Previous plans by the government of Nunavut to protect the 45 million year-old mummified forest on the island were put on hold in 2015. 

Science camps in Nunavut 

Pollard's work in the North started with his PhD research on permafrost in northern Yukon in the 1970s. He's studied ground ice in the N.W.T.'s Mackenzie Valley and permafrost erosion in Nunavut.  

When McGill was partnered with the government of Nunavut to deliver the Nunavut Teacher Education Program he taught science courses in several communities. 

Through that program, he organized a science camp for high school students called Spaceward Bound, that developed curriculum materials with Inuit teachers focused on space.


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