Moira Isobel Dunbar Geography

Pioneer of Arctic sea-ice research and the first woman to conduct scientific observations on Canadian icebreakers

"What? Fly to the Arctic? In an RCAF plane? A woman? Impossible!"

The Story

Born in 1918, Moira Dunbar's first career was as a stage actress in London, where she performed for the armed forces during the Second World War. Dunbar emigrated to Canada in 1947 with a geography degree from Oxford University. She first worked for the Joint Intelligence Bureau of Canada, gathering information on the movement of arctic ice at the time of the Cold War. She moved to the Defence Research Board in 1952, a time when scientific work in the North was just starting. Dunbar was able to overcome the attitudes of the day regarding the inclusion of a woman on military aircraft and icebreakers, and traveled north with the crews, becoming a recognized expert on sea ice. She was one of the first women to fly over the North Pole.

In 1956, Dunbar and airforce navigator Keith Greenaway co-wrote Arctic Canada from the Air. Dunbar was one of the first to observe a polynya, an area of open water or thin ice which develops in winter when strong winds flowing south from the Arctic Ocean combine with warm upwelling in the sea. Her observations on summer cruises in Canadian government icebreakers and on reconnaissance flights over the Arctic islands led to analytical studies of ice conditions and work on the standardization of ice terminology. She was the author of many scientific papers on the topic.

Dunbar was active in evaluating remote sensors for collecting ice data and pioneered sideways-looking radar for airborne reconnaissance. She traveled to Europe to observe icebreaking practices in other northern countries and advised on ice trials for hovercraft and supertankers.

Following her retirement in 1978, Dunbar ran a hobby farm and enjoyed volunteer work as a local historian. She passed away at the age of 81.

Sources: Vision and Valour (DND); Royal Canadian Geographical Society; Obituary Daily Times. Photo: Department of National Defence.

The Person

Edinburgh, Scotland
Date of Death
November 22, 1999
Place of Death
Nepean, Ontario
Other Interests
Linguist: Spoke Russian, German and French Musician: Piano and guitar
  • BA (Geography) Oxford U, 1939
  • Fellow, Royal Society of Canada
  • Centennial Award (Canadian Meteorological Service), 1971
  • Massey Medal, 1972
  • Officer, Order of Canada, 1977
Last Updated
June 22, 2015

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