Ross Mackay’s
90th Birthday Celebration

February 17, 2006

The University of British Columbia
Vancouver, Canada

Ross Mackay

by Dr. Chris Burn

Ross Mackay was born on 31 December 1915 in Formosa (Taiwan) the son and grandson of Canadian missionary parents, whose memory is honoured there in education and health care to this day. Ross took his BA at Clark University (1939), and MA at Boston University (1941). In September 1941 he volunteered for service as a private (gunner) with the Royal Canadian Artillery, and was commissioned an officer in 1942. He was transferred to the Canadian Intelligence Corps, and served with distinction overseas as OC of an intelligence unit in Darwin, Australia. At the end of the war he retired with the rank of Major. He returned to academic work in 1946, with appointment as Assistant Professor at McGill University, while he completed his PhD at the University of Montreal (1949). In 1949 Ross moved to the University of British Columbia, where he has since remained.

In 1951 he began fieldwork in the western Arctic, spending the summer in the Paulatuk area, accompanied by J. Keith Fraser and Joe Thrasher, a local hunter and trapper. The focus of the fieldwork was interpretation of aerial photographs and investigation of periglacial features, for large portions of Canada’s Arctic were then poorly known. He went to Cornwallis Island in 1952 with John Stager to continue similar work. From 1954 to 2004 Ross carried out fieldwork almost every year in the Mackenzie Delta area and adjacent regions. In 1964, he established a field station at Garry Island, for summer and winter work, and here made many of his observations on the development of ice-wedge polygons and other periglacial features. He initiated the Illisarvik drained lake field experiment on 13 August 1978, to study processes associated with the aggradation of permafrost ab initio. His observations on ground ice and other aspects of periglacial geomorphology were made throughout the Tutktoyaktuk Coastlands, along the Yukon coast, and in the Mackenzie Valley. The fieldwork provided the basis for his emergence as the world authority on permafrost and ground ice.

Ross has published over 200 scholarly works, over half which are in refereed journals, and over 150 of which are single authored. Two of these contributions are government memoirs, on the Anderson River area (1958) and the Mackenzie Delta area (1963). Fifty of the papers were published after his formal “retirement” in 1980. He is identified internationally with the literature on pingos and ice wedges. His rigorous method is described in Field and Theory, the Festschrift edited by Michael Church and Olav Slaymaker, published in 1985. The combination of field observation, experimental design, and analytical interpretation was revolutionary for physical geography in the 1950s and 1960s, and provides magisterial examples of the earth systems approach to understanding the behaviour of permafrost terrain.

Many of Ross’ colleagues at UBC and a few professors from abroad have accompanied him to Garry Island and Illisarvik for winter fieldwork. They witnessed the meticulous planning and strategic selection of field activities that are necessary for successful investigations in the Arctic. Most of his Master’s (6) and doctoral (8) students went on to make significant contributions. In geocryology, the PhD theses of Dennis Kerfoot, Sam Outcalt, Mike Smith, and Alan Gell, are all regarded as benchmark investigations. Blair Fitzharris, Ross’ last PhD student, is the cryosphere correspondent for the IPCC.

Ross was elected President of both the Canadian Association of Geographers (1953-54) and Association of American Geographers (1969-70). He represented Canada as a founding member of the International Permafrost Association, acting as Secretary-General for 1983-93.

Ross was appointed an Officer, Order of Canada in 1981. He was the first recipient of the Canada’s Centenary Medal for Northern Science. He has also received the Massey, Miller, and Logan medals. In 1986 the King of Sweden presented Ross with the Vega Medal, awarded internationally every two years since 1880. Ross is a Fellow, Royal Society of Canada, and a Foreign Fellow, Russian Academy of Natural Sciences. He has received five honorary degrees.

Ross and Violet Meekins were married in 1944, but, sadly, she passed away in 1997. Their daughters, Anne (John) and Leslie (David) live in British Columbia. Ross and Violet enjoyed the outdoors, especially birds, and they loved the dogs who shared their home. Violet travelled north with Ross many times in summer, staying at Garry Island and Illisarvik, and once in winter at Paulatuk. Ross is quietly proud of his seven namesakes, all children of former graduate students and field associates who worked with him in the Arctic.