We are SUPER excited to begin this amazing new year! It’s 2018 and a bit chilly (to say the least) in places around the world so we thought we would continue our Women in Geoscience Series with a very cool trailblazer… Moira Dunbar.
First female researcher working on ice breakers in Canada’s High Arctic and one of the first women to fly over the North Pole.
Moira Dunbar was born on February 3rd 1918 in Edinburgh. She studied geography at St. Anne’s College of the University of Oxford graduating with a Batchelor of Arts in 1939. During World War II she joined a theatre troupe entertaining armed forces around the UK. Dunbar immigrated to Canada in 1947 working at the Joint Intelligence Bureau where she first studied Arctic ice movement before joining the Arctic Section of the Defence Research Board as Scientific Staff Officer in 1952. While there she specialised in sea ice and navigation in the Arctic.
Unwilling to accept a previous denial to join a crew of scientists on an arctic voyage due to women being banned on naval vessels in 1954, Dunbar persevered for six months continuing to make requests and bringing the situation to ministerial levels until in 1955 she was allowed to join an icebreaker survey. In doing so, Dunbar became the first woman to conduct scientific research from Canadian icebreakers. Despite being told air force stations were “no place for women” Dunbar clocked over 560 hours on Royal Canadian Air Force aircrafts studying ice formations in the High Arctic and became one of the first women to fly over the north pole.
I think they regarded me as some sort of cross between a delicate flower and a dangerous disease. They were against it from the start, partly because the only places you could stay were air force stations and that was ‘no place for a woman’. I think they expected me to go around seducing all the men or something. Moira Dunbar
Throughout her career Dunbar studied and pioneered radar remote sensing for airborne reconnaissance, became a leading authority on the standardization of sea-ice terminology, and wrote a number of accounts of Arctic exploration. She published multiple papers on Arctic sea ice and co-authored the book ‘Arctic Canada from the Air’ with fellow Royal Canadian Air Force navigator Keith Greenaway, documenting the earliest use of observing sea ice through airborne photography. Considered a leading expert in Arctic navigation, Dunbar learnt Russian to study soviet icebreaking methods in the USSR and Finland in 1964 and became an advisor to the Arctic hovercraft trials in 1966-1969.
In 1971, Dunbar won the Meteorological Service of Canada’s Centennial Award and made history once again in 1972 when she became the only woman ever to be awarded the Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s Massey Medal. The Massey Medal recognizes outstanding achievement in the exploration, development or description of Canada’s geography. Dunbar was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and served as both governor of the Arctic Institute of North America and director of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Moira Dunbar retired in 1978 after being made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1977. To this day her work on Arctic Ice and navigation remains the foundations of modern Arctic research. As the citation for her Massey Medal notes:
“No one intending to do anything in northern transportation is likely to get very far without making use of her research.”