Moira Dunbar

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Moira hard at work with the Canadian Government's ambitions in the Arctic sea-ice
Isobel Moira Dunbar

Isobel Moira Dunbar

(1918-02-03)3 February 1918
Died22 November 1999(1999-11-22) (aged 81)
EducationCranley School for Girls
Alma materSt Anne's College, Oxford
Known forArctic Canada from the Air
AwardsMassey Medal
Meteorological Service of Canada Centennial Award

Isobel Moira Dunbar FRSC OC (3 February 1918 – 22 November 1999) was a Scottish-Canadian glaciologist and Arctic sea-ice researcher.

Personal Life[edit]

Moira Dunbar was born in 1918 in Edinburgh, Scotland. She grew up in Stornoway, Strathpeffer, and Kilmarnock, and attended Cranley School for Girls.[1] Her father, William John Dunbar, was a popular sheriff and advocate of the Scottish Bar. Her brother Maxwell was a marine biologist who was also made FRSC OC. Moira also had a sister, Elizabeth Jenkins (née Dunbar).[1]

While studying at the University of Oxford, Moira performed with the Oxford University Drama Society. After graduating with a BA (Hons) in Geography, Moira toured Great Britain with the English Theatre as a professional actor and stage manager.[1] Outside of acting Moira had many creative pursuits - musically she was fond of the guitar and piano.[2]

After emigrating to Canada and finding work with the federal governent, Moira continued her language studies becoming certified as a linguist in the Russian language in 1958. She was also fluent in German and French.[2] In 1964 she would travel to Russia to observe their icebreaking operations with a government team.[1]

Isobel Moira Dunbar passed away on 22 November 1999 in Nepean, Ontario, at the age of 81.[2]


Moira Dunbar attended Cranley School for Girls from grades 1-12 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Dunbar studied geography at St Anne's College at the University of Oxford, completing her BA (Hons) Geography in 1939. She went on to complete her MA in Geography in 1948.[1]


Dunbar travelled to Canada in 1947 on a visitor's visa and learned that the Canadian Government was in need of trained geographers. She joined the Joint Intelligence Bureau where her career began editing a book of Arctic terrain and sea-ice descriptions and photographs obtained by two Royal Canadian Air Force navigators, Keith Greenaway and Sidney E. Colthorpe.[3][4] Dunbar's study of the 404,000 square miles of the Arctic mapped by the RCAF in 1947 along with the 911,000 square miles mapped the next year added some 5,000 square miles to Canadian lands, leaving only 15% of the Dominion north of 75° to be mapped from the air.[4]

In 1952 she joined the Defence Research Board in the position of Scientific Staff Officer in the Arctic Research Section.[3][2] She specialised in sea-ice and navigation through frozen Arctic waters. In 1954, she applied to join the crew of scientists on a Royal Canadian Navy icebreaker travelling to the Arctic, but her request was denied as women could not be allowed on Royal Naval vessels. She continued her requests until being given permission to join an icebreaker with the Department of Transport in 1955.[1][3] She served on numerous icebreakers and spent 560 hours on Royal Canadian Air Force aircraft, studying ice formations in the High Arctic.[3] While upon the icebreakers, she utilized sideways-looking radar for airborne reconnaissance,[5] figuring out how the ice moved through the process of photographing the ice at different times during the days and year. Her analysis of the ice conditions[5] and measurement of the various pictures allowed her to determine the ice's position at different times of the year.

Dunbar went on many research excursions varying from flying with the RCAF to traveling on icebreakers.[6] The combined knowledge and experience she gained enabled her to publish numerous papers on Arctic sea-ice, such as the 1956 paper she co-authored with RCAF navigator Keith Greenaway tited Arctic Canada from the Air. Dunbar and Greenway's book was the first civilian airborne geological survey of its kind and is considered essential material in the fields of Arctic and sea-ice science.[1] In her other papers, Dunbar studied the use of radar remote-sensing in sea-ice research, promoted the standardisation of sea-ice terminology, and wrote historical accounts of Arctic exploration.[3] She investigated icebreaking methods in the Soviet Union and Finland in 1964, and was an adviser to the Canadian Defence Reseach Board's Arctic hovercraft trials in 1966–1969.[7]

In 1976 while Dunbar was studying the use of radar remote sensing equipment to study the Arctic ice, she, in conjunction with the Royal Navy, used radar to map the Arctic ice surface and subsurface. While Dunbar flew overhead laser-profiling the topography of the Arctic ice surface, HMS Sovereign radar-mapped the underside of the same surface.[1]

Isobel Moira Dunbar retired in 1978, running a hobby farm and volunteering as a local historian.[2]


Moira Dunbar was among the first women to fly over the North Pole and was also the first woman to conduct scientific research from Canadian icebreakers.[1][8] She was the first Canadian coordinator to successfully evaluate satellite photography for ice reconnaissance.[1] Moira recognized the immense contributions made by Russian sceintists towards the study of sea-ice, and accordingly trained and certified as a Russian linguist in 1958.[3] In 1969 Dunbar was present to observe the Arctic test of the largest icebreaker in history, the refitted tanker SS Manhattan, which would go on to become the first ship to cross the Northwest Passage.[5]

Dunbar was one of the first Arctic scientists to study polynyas , open areas of water or thin ice that develop in the winter when strong winds flow South from the Arctic Ocean combine with warm upwelling in the sea.[2]

In 1971, Dunbar won the Meteorological Service of Canada's Centennial Award.[2] In 1972 she was awarded the Royal Canadian Geographical Society's Massey Medal for "...her excellent work in Arctic geography and sea-ice";[9] she is the only woman to have won the medal.[8] She was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1977.[2] She also served as governor of the Arctic Institute of North America and director of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.[1]

After her passing, she chose to leave the seven acres of property she owned in Limavady, County Londonderry to the Queen’s Foundation, which to this day continues to honour her legacy as a woman in science.[10]


  • High Latitude Navigational Flights (Arctic Circular, 1951)
  • Ice Islands: Evidence from North Greenland (Arctic, 1953)
  • The Royal Arctic Theatre (Canadian Art, 1958)
  • Thrust Structures in Young Sea Ice (Journal of Glaciology, 1960)

In 1956 Dunbar co-authored Arctic Canada from the Air with RCAF Wing Commander and navigator Keith Greenaway, the first ever comprehensive aerial examination of the Arctic geography by a civilian. She has also authored papers on radar remote sensing for sea-ice studies (1975), and as a proponent of winter navigation in the Gulf of St Lawrence, she and others worked to standardize sea-ice terminology (1965).[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Moira Dunbar". The Herald. 11 December 1999. Retrieved 1 November 2015.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h "Moira Isobel Dunbar". 22 June 2015. Retrieved 1 November 2015.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Hulbe, Christina L.; Wang, Weili; Ommanney, Simon (2010). "Women in glaciology, a historical perspective" (PDF). Journal of Glaciology. 56 (200): 944–964. Bibcode:2010JGlac..56..944H. doi:10.3189/002214311796406202.
  4. ^ a b "Mapping In Full Flight: Air Force, Part 28". Legion Magazine. 2008-08-18. Retrieved 2020-12-15.
  5. ^ a b c "Moira Dunbar | The Canadian Encyclopedia". Retrieved 2020-10-01.
  6. ^ admin. "Moira Dunbar (1918-1999) | CWSE-ON". Retrieved 2020-10-01.
  7. ^ Rowley, Diana (10 June 2008). "Isobel Moira Dunbar". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Retrieved 1 November 2015.
  8. ^ a b Vincent, Mary. "Northern exposure". Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Retrieved 1 November 2015.
  9. ^ "Massey Medal". Royal Canadian Geographical Society. Retrieved 1 November 2015.
  10. ^ "Moira's legacy of land". 2020-05-20. Retrieved 2020-12-15.