McGill Arctic Research Station


McGill Arctic Research Station (M.A.R.S.)

(Latitude, Longitude) : (79° 26’ N, 90° 46’ W)

Expedition Fiord, Axel Heiberg Island, Nunavut, Canada

Altitude: 176 m

The McGill Arctic Research Station (MARS) was established in 1960 at Expedition Fjord on Axel Heiberg Island in the Canadian high Arctic. MARS is one of the longest-operating seasonal field research facilities in the high Arctic and has the longest continuous mass balance record for any high Arctic glacier (White Glacier). The station consists of a small research hut, a cook house and 2 temporary structures. It can comfortably accommodate 8-12 persons and provides access to glacier, ice cap and polar desert environments. Current research activities include glaciology, climate change, permafrost hydrology, geology, geomorphology, limnology, planetary analogues and microbiology.


Logistical information and inventory of services and equipment available at the McGill Arctic Research Station (M.A.R.S.)


        • 79o26' N, 90o46' W.

        • Expedition Fiord, Axel Heiberg Island, Nunavut.


Primary logistics provider:

    Dr. Wayne Pollard.

    McGill University, Department of Geography

    805 Sherbrooke Street West

    Montreal, PQ, Canada H3A 2K6.

    Tel: +1 (514) 398-4454

    Fax +1 (514) 398-7437   



• Approximately 31 March to 30 August (dates are subject to change).

Nearest Town:

• Resolute Bay, Cornwallis Island, Nunavut.

Access to research station:

• Commercial flights are available to Resolute Bay from the east (via Iqaluit, Nunavut, operated by First Air: ) or west (via Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. Flights to Cambridge Bay are available from Yellowknife, operated by Canadian North: . Flights from Cambridge Bay to Resolute Bay are operated by Kenn Borek Air: ).

• Accommodation in Resolute Bay is available at the community-owned Qausuittuq Inn (+1 (867) 252-3900 or +1 (888) 866-6784. Website: ), the Polar Continental Shelf Project (Website: ), or the South Camp Inn (+1 (867) 252-3737).

• From Resolute Bay, transport to the field site is by Twin Otter aircraft (cost of Twin Otter flight given below).

Permits and licences:

• Researchers working in the Arctic are required to have a territorial scientific research licence. It is the responsibility of the individual researchers to ensure that they have all the necessary licences and permits. The Nunavut Research Institute (P.O. Box 1720 - C.P. 1720, Iqaluit, NU X0A 0H0; Tel: +1 (867) 979-4108; Fax: +1 (867) 979-4681; Website: ) is responsible for issuing scientific research licences; they can advise you as to what documentation is required and can assist you in obtaining it. Note that the licensing process can be lengthy and you should apply at least three months before you plan to go into the field.

Cost to access research station (per person)1:     

• Return flight from Resolute Bay to research station2 $ 2100

• Per diem3      $ 210

1 For groups of 3 or more people, an additional contribution is required due to the extra strain on camp infrastructure, which may necessitate the hiring of additional support staff and the purchasing of additional equipment. Contact the primary logistics provider for costs.

2 This cost is based on shared use of a Twin Otter flight (6 hours of total flying time) and includes up to 40 kg of personal baggage/equipment. An additional fee will be required for equipment/baggage in excess of this weight. Contact the primary logistics provider for costs.

Communications available:

• HF Radio with Polar Continental Shelf Project frequencies 4472.5 and 441.0.

• Iridium satellite phone – users are expected to provide their own pre-paid phone card.

Power available:

• 24 hour power for operating laptop computers, other electronics and equipment (120V AC or 12V DC).

Accommodation at research station:

• Individuals will each have a bunk and storage space for personal gear. Individuals must provide own sleeping bag and foam mattress.

• There is bunk space for 16 persons but during peak times the overflow will be in tented accommodation (tents provided).

General equipment and facilities available:

• Cook house and dining tent (20'x12') with an eating area for 10–12 persons.

• Heated research/sleeping hut (40'x18'). The laboratory facility will have workbench space, storage cabinets, power, and heat. A polished water system is available to provide reagent grade water. Routine glassware and assorted sample bottles.

• 2 unheated Weatherhaven structures (12'x16') for additional bunk space and storage.

• Shack tent for storage.

• Hot water shower and toilet facility.

• Primitive wash facilities.

• Differential GPS (Trimble 4700).

• Basic power tools, ice augers, chain saws, standard hand tools.

• Basic survival gear.

• All-Terrain Vehicles.4

• Skidoos.

• 1:50,000 and 1:10,000 scale topographic maps; RADARSAT and ASTER images

Specialized equipment/services available at cost5:

• Geophysical equipment: Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) and Capacitive-coupled Resistivity total station.

• Data from a network of 6 automatic weather stations.

Support staff available:

• Base camp manager.

• Deputy base camp manager.

• Inuit field assistants.

Description of research station and previous research carried out at the site:

Historical Background

The chain of events leading up to the establishment of the McGill Axel Heiberg Field Station began when the late George Jacobsen visited Axel Heiberg Island in 1953.  Prior to the establishment of the Eureka weather station on Ellesmere Island in 1947, Axel Heiberg Island was one of the most inaccessible areas of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, a fact that limited scientific research in the area until the 1950's.  McGill researchers have a long history of Arctic science; however; participation in the International Geophysical Year (1957-58) – Operation Hazen at Lake Hazen on Ellesmere Island, and the Jacobsen-McGill Arctic Research Expedition in 1959 and 1960 firmly established the university's presence in the High Arctic.  

3 Includes food, fuel for heating, cooking, running generators, and general uses ATVs; access to the listed "general equipment and facilities" and "support staff".

4 If substantial/exclusive use of an ATV(s) is required/preferred, a charge of $50 per day is necessary (includes fuel and costs associated with upkeep).

5 Contact the primary logistics provider for costs.

The expedition and the resulting field station evolved from an initial meeting between George Jacobsen (Arctic Tower Co.), Ken Hare, and Brian Bird (Geography), Sven Orvig (Meteorology) and Haakan Kranck (Geology). Once plans for an expedition had been made, the research committee expanded to include Fritz MŸller (Geography) as expedition leader, Elton Pounder (Physics) and V.Saul (Geology). In 1959, a reconnaissance expedition involving Jacobsen, MŸller, Kranck and Peter Adams (then a Ph.D. student) spent 6 weeks on the island and selected South Fiord (now called Expedition Fiord) as a suitable region for concentrated study. The first major operation was in 1960 when 27 scientists and assistants spent 4 months at Expedition (South) Fiord on west Central Axel Heiberg Island.  In 1961 the expedition involved 18 researchers and again occupied the camp for 4 months.  The base camp was developed around 2 prefabricated buildings prepared by Arctic Tower Co.  A highlight of this early phase was a joint National Research Council – Canadian Army –  McGill mapping program, which resulted in the production of 1:50,000 scale colour map of the region as well as series of 1:10,000 and 1:5,000 scale maps of the White, Thompson, Baby and Crusoe Glaciers.  The level of activity during these early years was truly impressive. Fairly intensive glaciological, geological and climatological research continued through the 1960's. In 1972, the station hosted 20 scientists from several countries as part of an IGU field excursion lead by Fritz  MŸller.  Although the base of operation for much research undertaken on the west side of Axel Heiberg Island, the level of activity (particularly McGill research) decreased through the 1970's to its lowest point in the early 1980's. Through this period the station was the base of operation for a group of Swiss glaciologists and geomorphologists from ETH in Zurich.  In 1983, renewed interest in the mass balance record and Colour Lake basin hydrology (Peter Adams) spurred a moderate resurgence in activity which peaked in 1991 when the station was occupied continuously from May to August with 35 researchers from 8 different user groups. The McGill presence was re-established by Wayne Pollard in 1988 who began research on permafrost geomorphology. When Pollard assumed the direction of the McGill Subarctic Station in 1991, he expanded the director's responsibilities to include the Axel Heiberg Station. Since 1990 the station has maintained a reasonably constant level of activity from a variety of users.


The 1959 expedition had 2 basic aims: first, "to study the evolution of the mountainous and strongly glacierized and glaciated area of the central part of western Axel Heiberg Island" and second "to train future scientists in the fields of glaciology, geophysics, meteorology, geology, geomorphology, permafrost science, botany and surveying".  These aims not only dictated the site selection of the camp and but to a large extent the ongoing raison d'tre of the station.  Utilizing the extensive data base and reasonably long record, contemporary research programs have tended to focus on specific problems and processes.  

Today, the overarching aim of research undertaken at MARS is the understanding of physical and biological processes in cold polar desert and glacierized environments.  In recent years three themes have dominated most of the research projects, permafrost hydrology, extreme environment biology and astrobiology.

The Facility

The station consists of 2 small, well insulated, permanent buildings and a series of temporary structures.  The main building is a combination sleeping hut and laboratory and a smaller hut functions as a small cook house. This camp acts as a staging base and fuel cash for Polar Continental Shelf Project (PCSP) activities for this part of the Arctic. The camp is positioned on a small lake, which acts as a water source. In recent years this station has operated from late may through late August with an average annual occupancy of 400-500 person days. 

Study Area

The McGill Axel Heiberg station is located at 79°26'N, 90°46'W, near the termini of the White and Thompson Glaciers at the head of Expedition Fiord on west side of Axel Heiberg Island.   It is located in a mountainous area dominated by ice caps, outlet and valley glaciers, polar desert, arctic tundra and permafrost.  The mean annual temperature for Expedition Fiord is about -16°C. Extreme minimums of <-50 C have been recorded by max-min thermometers at the terminus of the White Glacier.  A permafrost thickness of >400 m was documented in an exploration well on the east side of Axel Heiberg, roughly 60 km from Expedition Fiord.  It is reasonable to assume that similarly deep continuous permafrost also exists in the study area. Lying within the Sverdrup Basin, the geology of the area consists of folded and faulted Mesozoic sedimentary rocks intruded by evaporite diapirs.

Current Research

The current research emphasis is still in the fields of glaciology, geology, hydrology, geocryology, exobiology and astrobiology. A study concerned with climate change and microclimatic vatiation as a back drop to other polar desert processes is currently being conducted by Wayne Pollard and Dale Andersen (McGill University). The mass balance record is being maintained by Miles Ecclestone at Trent University.  Dale Andersen (SETI Institute), Chris McKay (NASA Ames), Ian Hawes, (NIWA), Eleanor Bell (Edinburgh University), Peter Doran (University of Illinois), Mike English (Wilfrid Laurier) and Sherry Schiff (University of Waterloo), together with their students, have conducted detailed research on hydrology, water chemistry and biology of Colour Lake (a naturally acidic lake pH 3-3.5 ) and the active layer around the lake. In the mid 1990’s studies focussing on ice-covered lakes was initiated as a joint NASA-DRI project but is currently lead by Dale Andersen.  Wayne Pollard's research is concerned with the analysis periglacial landforms, ground ice from the White and Thompson Glacier moraines and the hydrology of mineral springs located at Gypsum Hill and Colour Peak (as well as 4 other locations on Axel Heiberg Island). The latter includes collaborations with Dale Andersen, Jennifer Heldmann (NASA Ames), Chris Omelon (University Of Toronto) and Lyle Whyte (McGill University) and involves analysis of icing and frost mound phenomena as well as ground water hydrology. Whyte’s research invovles a detailed investigation of microbial activity in the perennial springs and surrounding permafrost. The study of cryoconite biology was undertaken by Derek Mueller (McGill University) and microbiology of glacier ice environments by Andrew Mitchell (University of Toronto). Over the past 8 years other research activities have included remote sensing studies by Paul Budkewitsch (CCRS), plant biology research by Laurie Consul (McGill) and Lynn Gillespie (Museum of Nature), limnology studies by Peter Doran, (University of Illinois), Marianne Douglas (University of Toronto), regional geologic mapping (University of Calgary, and the GSC), fiord sedimentation by Bob Gilbert, (Queens University) and Quaternary history by Don Lemmen (GSC) and Alec Aitken (University of Saskatchewan). Numerous graduate and undergraduate research projects have been associated with most of the projects listed above.  

Recent Publications

Refereed journal papers

Pollard, W. H. (in press, accepted Sept 2003) A comparison of two massive ground ice types. Bulletin of Glaciological Research. 

Omelon, C., Pollard, W. & Andersen, D., (in press – accepted Sept 2004) Geochemical evolution of perennial springs and the formation of travertines at Expedition Fiord in the Canadian High Arctic. Applied Geochemistry.

Pollard, W.H. (2005) Icing processes associated with high arctic perennial springs on Axel Heiberg Island, Nunavut. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes , 16, 51-68.

Andersen, D., Pollard, W., MacKay, C. & Heldmann, J., (2005) Correction to “Cold springs in Permafrost on Earth and Mars”. Journal of Geophysical Research, 110, E04007.10.1029/2004JE002384*

Juck, D., Whissel, G., Steven, B., Pollard, W.,McKay, C., Greer, C., and  Whyte, L. (2005) Utilization of Fluorescent Microspheres and a Green Fluorescent Protein-Marked Strain for Assessment of Microbiological Contamination of Permafrost and Ground Ice Core Samples from the Canadian High Arctic.  Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 71,  1035-1041.  

Heldmann, J., McKay, C., Pollard, W. Andersen, D. (2005), High Arctic saline icing dynamics. Arctic and Alpine Research, 37, 1, 127-135  

Heldmann, J. , Toon, B., Pollard, W., Mellon, M., Pitlick, J.,McKay, C., and Andersen, D. (2005). Formation of Martian gullies by the flow of simultaneously freezing and boiling liquid water. Journal of Geophysical Research, 110. E05004 10.1029/2004JE002261.

Mueller D.R. & Pollard , W.H., (2004) Gradient analysis of glacial cryoconite ecosystems: a bipolar comparison. Polar Biology, 66-74.

Murton, J.B., Waller, R., Hart, J.K., Whiteman, C., Pollard, W.H., and Clark, I. (2004). Stratigraphy and glaciotectonic structures of permafrost deformed beneath the northwest margin of the Laurentide Ice Sheet, Tuktoyaktuk Coastlands, Canada. Journal of Glaciology  50, 170, 399-411.

Hawes, I., Andersen, D. & Pollard, W., (2002). Aquatic Macrophytes in Colour Lake, a naturally acidic polar lake. Arctic, 55, 320-327.

Soare, R., Green, D. and Pollard, W. (2002) The habitability of Europa: A Cautionary Note. Eos. Trans. AGU. 83, 231.

Andersen, D., Pollard, W., MacKay, C. & Heldmann, J., (2002) Cold springs in Permafrost on Earth and Mars. Journal of Geophysical Research, 107, E.3 10.10129/2000JE001436.

Soare, R., Pollard, W. & Green, D. 2001. Deductive model proposed for evaluating terrestrial analogues, Eos. Trans. AGU, 82, 501.

Mueller, D.R., Vincent, W.F., Pollard, W.H. & Fritsen, C.H. (2001).Glacial cryoconite ecosystems: A bipolar comparison of algal communities and habitats. Nova Hedwigia Beihefte, 123, 173-197. 

Omelon ,C. R., Pollard W.H. & Marion, G.M. (2001). Seasonal formation of Ikaite (CaCO3á6H2O) in saline spring discharge at Expedition Fiord, Canadian High Arctic: assessing conditional constraints for natural crystal growth. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta , 65, 1429-1437. 

Heldmann, J.L., Toon, O.B., Pollard, W.H., Mellon, M.T., McKay, C.P., and D.T. Andersen. (2000) Cold Springs in Thick, Continuous Permafrost on Earth and Mars, Eos. Trans. AGU, 81 (48), P61B-05.

Cabrol, N., Grim, E. & Pollard, W.H. (2000). Possible frost mounds in an ancient Martian lakebed. ICARUS 145, 91-107.

Pollard, W., Omelon, C., Andersen, D. & McKay, C. (1999).Perennial spring occurrence in the Expedition Fiord area, Axel Heiberg Island, Canadian Journal for Earth Sciences, 36, 105-120. 

Other Refereed publications

Heldmann, J., Toon, O., McKay, C., Andersen, D., Pollard, W., (2003). High Arctic saline springs as analogues for springs on Mars. Proc. of the 8th International Permafrost Conference, Zurich, Switzerland 373-377. 

Omelon, C.R., Pollard, W.H., Ferris, F.G., White, L, and Andersen, D. (2003). High Arctic cryptoendolithic microorganisms: ecological constraints and survival strategies in a polar desert environment. Proc. of the 8th International Permafrost Conference, Zurich, Switzerland 851- 857. 

Pollard, W., Doran, P. & Wharton, R. (2002). Massive ground ice in the Ross Sea Drift, Garwood Valley, McMurdo Sound. In Gamble, J. (ed.) Proceedings of the Eighth International Symposium on Antarctic Earth Science, Wellington New Zealand, July 1999. 397-404.

Budkewitsch, P., D'Iorio, M.A., Vachon, P.W., Pollard, W.H. & Andersen, D.T. (2000). Geomorphic, Active Layer and Environmental Changes Detected in SAR Scene Coherence Images. In: Proceedings of the Sixth Circumpolar Symposium on Remote Sensing of Polar Environments, Yellowknife, NWT, June 12-14, 8-16.

Pollard, W., Andersen, D., Vali, H., & McKay, C., and Arkani-Hamed J. (1999) A Mars Analogue Research Station (MARS) in the Canadian High Arctic. In: Proceedings Canada in Space Exploration: The Second Canadian Space Exploration Workshop, Canada Space Agency, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta. Oct. 17-21.

Pollard, W., Omelon, C., Andersen, D. & McKay, C. (1998). Geomorphic and hydrologic characteristics of perennial springs on Axel Heiberg Island, NWT. In: Lewkowicz, A.G. and Allard, M. (editors) Proceedings, Seventh International Permafrost Conference, Yellowknife, 23-27 June, Universite Laval, Centre d'etudes nordiques, Collection Nordicana, No 57, 909-914.

Pollard, W. & T. Bell (1998). Massive ice formation in the Eureka Sound Lowlands: A landscape model. In: Lewkowicz, A.G. and Allard, M. (editors) Proceedings, Seventh International Permafrost

Couture, N. & Pollard, W. (1998). An assessment of ground ice volume near Eureka, Northwest Territories. In: Lewkowicz, A.G. and Allard, M. (editors) Proceedings, Seventh International Permafrost Conference, Yellowknife, 23-27 June, UniversitŽ Laval, Centre d' Žtudes nordiques, Collection Nordicana, No 57, 195-200.

Robinson, S. & Pollard, W. (1998). Massive ground ice within Eureka Sound bedrock, Fosheim  Peninsula, Ellesmere Island, NWT. In: Lewkowicz, A.G. and Allard, M. (editors) Proceedings, Seventh International Permafrost Conference, Yellowknife, 23-27 June, Universite Laval, Centre d' Žtudes nordiques, Collection Nordicana, No 57, 949-954.

Pollard, W. H., (1991) A high Arctic occurrence of seasonal frost mounds. Proceedings, Northern Hydrology Symposium, Environment Canada, Saskatoon, July 1990. Edited by T. Prowse and C. Ommanney, NHRI Paper 6: 263-275.

McKay, C., Andersen, D., Pollard, W.H., Heldmann, J., Doran, P., Fritsen, C., Priscu, J., (2004)  Polar Lakes, Streams, and Springs as Analogs for the Hydrological Cycle on Mars. In Water on Mars and Life, edited by T. Tokano, Springer-Verlag, Berlin, 219-233.

Pollard, W., Omelon, C., Couture, N., Solomon, S. & Budkewitsch, P., (2002) Ice content and sensitivity analysis based on landscape interpretation for several sites along the Beaufort Sea coast. Berichte zur Polarforshung und Meeresforschung, 413, 48-52. 

Pollard, W.H. (2000). Distribution and characterization of ground ice on Fosheim Peninsula, Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, in M. Garneau and B.T. Alt , Environmental Response to Climate Change in the Canadian High Arctic,; Geological Survey of Canada, Bulletin 529. P. 207-233. 

Pollard, W.H. (2000). Ground ice aggradation on Fosheim Peninsula, Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, in M. Garneau and B.T. Alt , Environmental Response to Climate Change in the Canadian High Arctic,; Geological Survey of Canada, Bulletin 529. P. 325-333.