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The Canadian Arctic is a vast landscape with physical features sculpted over millennia by wind, water and ice. Its unique terrain and spaces are almost otherworldly; so much so, that scientists look to it to help them understand other planets.
Canada is actually a world leader in analogue planetary science, according to Richard Soare. Analogue planetary science is a relatively new field in which people study features on Earth to evaluate possible geological processes and landforms on other worlds.
Soare, a sessional lecturer in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment who also teaches at Dawson College, focuses on similarities between Earth and Mars in his research.
As he explained, not that long ago Earth was significantly colder and largely covered in ice, and Mars was a bit warmer. “Mars warm and Earth cold are not so different,” he said. “If there is or was water on Mars, it is logical to assume that it underwent similar processes to those which occur in cold climates on Earth.”
Cold climate processes lead to specific kinds of land formations or ground markers, such as pingos, earth-covered mounds of ground ice which can be up to 50 metres in height. By understanding the processes that went into the formation of pingos on Earth, analogue planetary science allows researchers to “reason backwards” when looking at Mars.
Because we know how pingos were formed here, “we can look for similar ground markers on Mars and assume similar processes were at work there.” As pingos necessarily involve water processes, finding them on Mars may point to water.
On Earth, areas of the Mackenzie Delta in the Northwest Territories near Tuktoyaktuk and Inuvik have one of the highest concentrations of pingos. For the last few summers, Soare has led a team of scientists and students to these areas for field-based studies.
“Our work has been supported by the Canadian Space Agency,” he said. No one else in the world offers more grants for this type of research.
Two of the students accompanying Soare on these trips have been undergraduates Dominic Veillette and Geoffrey Pearce. Last year, both received $1,500 grants from the Northern Scientific Training Program (NSTP, see next story) to support their research in the North. For Pearce, it changed the world.
“I learned that there is no substitute for field work. Although it is quite impressive to see images of the Mackenzie Delta, it is a whole other thing to walk off the plane and finally experience the landscape first-hand. It is much easier to appreciate the geology and geography of the area when one can stick a shovel into it and take a sample.
“I think it was after the first year's trip that my enthusiasm for planetary science really blossomed. I began to see the larger picture; I had previously found it difficult to imagine how Mars, for instance, could have any similarities to Earth, but I now see that although these planets are incredibly different, they are subject to the same rules and that it is not impossible for similarities to occur.”
Before the field work, Pearce wasn’t sure where he wanted to go with his studies. Now he admits to a “passion for planetary science.” He will likely pursue a Master’s degree at University of Western Ontario next fall.
UWO is one of only two places in Canada and a relative handful in the world where graduate studies of this type are available.
“We’re building a community from the ground up,” Soare said. “People are interested in our work. We get attention at conferences because what we do in Canada is unique. We want to show that we’re on the cutting edge, that the research we conduct is of high quality, and that we can compete with those who have access to larger budgets.”
If his students’ work is any indication, Soare is doing a great job. “They are both just undergraduates, but they’ve already presented the results of their findings at two conferences, one in Texas and the other in Italy.”