History of Polar Continental Shelf Program

The story began in 1957, with the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik. Although the Arctic's economic and strategic value had long been recognized, the sudden onset of the space race turned out to be the first in a series of events that triggered Canada's new scientific exploration policy in the Arctic.

Shortly after Sputnik was launched, the United States asked Canada for Arctic gravitational data required for its space program, and Canada agreed to make the information available. Then, in 1958, the U.S. submarine Nautilus completed the first under-ice crossing of the Arctic Ocean.

That same year, the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea gave nations the rights to mineral and other resources on their continental shelves to a depth of 200 metres. Canada was now claiming jurisdiction over a polar continental shelf about which it knew virtually nothing: for all the Canadians knew at the time, it might as well have been the dark side of the moon.

The only information available on the High Arctic, other than that gleaned from the preliminary findings of Operation Franklin in 1955, was scant. Most of it was based on studies made by a 1913-18 Canadian Arctic Expedition, and on maps published in the United States and the Soviet Union.

In answer to all these emerging pressures, in the spring of 1958 the Government of Canada established the Polar Continental Shelf Project. Since its first scientific forays into the field in 1959, Polar Shelf has built up a logistics support network that stretches approximately 2160 km from Alaska to Greenland, and from the Arctic Circle to the geographic North Pole. In the intervening 50 years the PCSP has played a major role in advancing Arctic science in Canada.

The name of the Polar Continental Shelf Project was broadened to the Polar Continental Shelf Program. As an on-going entity for more than 50 years, and given the nature of its activities, it is better described as a program than a project. This change allows PCSP to retain its name recognition and the history of the organization which is well known by both the Canadian and international scientific community.

Some dates to remember

1958, May 26
The Government of Canada creates the Polar Continental Shelf Project (PCSP).

1959, March 9
The first Polar Shelf field party sets out to begin research that continues to this day into the geology, geography, climate, ecosystems, culture and history of the Canadian Arctic.

PCSP mounts its first full-scale, systematic survey and research program. At the peak of operations, there were 70 scientists and technicians in the field. PCSP establishes its first base at Resolute, Cornwallis Island.

Polar Shelf establishes a base at Mould Bay on Prince Patrick Island in the western Arctic. The base was moved to Tuktoyaktuk in 1968.


A three-volume Sea-Ice Atlas of Arctic Canada is published showing the results of 19 years of observations from the logs of PCSP pilots, among others

Launch of the multi-disciplinary LOREX project to study the nature and origins of the Lomonosov Ridge - an underwater 3000-metre-high mountain range running from the continental shelf off Greenland and Ellesmere Island to the Siberian continental shelf.

The Canadian Expedition to Study the Alpha Ridge (CESAR) brings back core samples that contain three million years of history of the Arctic Ocean

Polar Shelf erects seven wooden buildings and a runway on an ice island - a 3000-year-old chunk of freshwater ice measuring roughly 8 km x 3 km that broke off Ellesmere Island's Ward Hunt Ice Shelf. The runway would melt each summer and would be rebuilt at the start of each spring field season.

Scientists carry out seismic experiments on the ice island to glean information on the structure of the polar continental shelf.

PCSP becomes strictly a logistics coordination agency; the last of its scientific staff return to their host agencies.

The Ice Island drifts southward among the Arctic Islands and breaks up; the research station is decommissioned.

PCSP establishes a Traditional Knowledge Program, providing logistics support to northern community programs involving elders and youth with a focus on preserving traditional aboriginal knowledge and skills.

In partnership with the Canadian Antarctic Research Program, PCSP establishes the Canadian Arctic-Antarctic Research Program to encourage scientific collaboration among Canadian Arctic research scientists and their Antarctic counterparts.

In its 40th anniversary year, Polar Continental Shelf Project is providing support to approximately 800 scientists from Canadian federal and territorial government agencies, northern land claims resource co-management boards, northern communities, Canadian universities and research scientists from other countries involved in roughly 150 research programs throughout the Canadian Arctic.

PCSP celebrates its 50th anniversary. A special lecture series to celebrate the event is held at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, Canada. Recognition is given to past Directors of PCSP and to scientists who benefit from PCSP.