Physicist James Drummond receives double honours for his contributions to the Canadian space community

March 10, 2021 by Chris Sasaki - A&S News

On December 18, 1999, James Drummond and his colleagues watched as an Atlas rocket lifted off from Vandenburgh Airforce Base in California carrying NASA’s Terra satellite into Earth orbit.

Terra carried five scientific instruments, including one called MOPITT — the Measurements of Pollution in the Troposphere instrument. Drummond had conceived of MOPITT ten years earlier and led the team that designed and built it.

“During the launch, it really hit me — that was my career going up on that rocket,” says Drummond, a professor emeritus in the Faculty of Arts & Science’s Department of Physics and a professor emeritus of physics at Dalhousie University.

“If it had blown up, my career would have gone with it and I would’ve had to do something else!”

But the rocket didn’t blow up and Terra and MOPITT have far exceeded the original mission goal of five years. (“I have always wondered whether the planning people were Trekkies,” Drummond has said, referring to the Starship Enterprise’s “five-year mission.”)

In fact, MOPITT is operating to this day, measuring global carbon monoxide (CO) levels in the lower atmosphere — something that previously had only been done for limited locations and periods of time.

Thanks to ten years of effort on the part of Drummond and his collaborators, atmospheric scientists could see for the first time the global distribution and movement of CO over extended periods, as well as events such as the increase in CO from the 2020 Australian and California wildfires.

For his work on MOPITT, the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL) in Canada’s Arctic, and for his leadership in the Canadian space community, Drummond has received the Alouette Award and the John H. Chapman Award of Excellence.

Animation of global CO from March-December 2000

A map created using MOPITT data shows high concentrations of carbon monoxide (red) including plumes that extend eastward from southeast Asia and North America's east coast. Visualization Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio.

The Alouette Award is presented annually by the Canadian Aeronautics and Space Institute for contributions in advancing Canadian space technology, applications, science or engineering.

The Chapman Award is the highest recognition given by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) for contributions to the Canadian space program, and to space science and technology.

“It’s very nice to receive these awards and the kudos that come with them,” says Drummond.

“But it’s important to remember that a lot of people worked very hard on MOPITT and other projects to make them a success. MOPITT has been supported by CSA right from the start and over a 25- to 30-year period, there’s been a team of more than 50 people who have been part of what it’s achieved.”

“I have been privileged to witness Jim’s vision, dedication and leadership in action,” says Kim Strong, chair of the Department of Physics.

“The awards recognize dedication to making Canada a world leader in space science and technology — and I can think of no one more deserving of these crowning achievements and no one better qualified to receive them than Jim.”

Drummond completed his D.Phil. and held a postdoctoral fellowship at Oxford University where he worked on balloon-borne and satellite instruments for studying the atmosphere. He joined U of T in 1979 where he has been a member of the earth, atmospheric and planetary physics group. He also held the Canada Research Chair in Remote Sounding of Atmospheres at Dalhousie University and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

Drummond’s leadership in the Canadian space community is evident in the roles he has played in Canadian and international organizations and collaborations. He is the founding president of the Canadian Network of Northern Research Operators (CNNRO), chair of the Forum of Arctic Research Operators (FARO) and was instrumental in forming the Canadian Network for the Detection of Atmospheric Change (CANDAC).

Drummond was also instrumental in establishing PEARL, an invaluable research station for the continuous monitoring of the Arctic atmosphere. Located on Ellesmere Island — at 80 degrees North latitude, a mere 1,100 kilometres from the North Pole — it is home to an array of instruments that gather data for scientists in Canada and around the world studying ozone depletion, climate change and air quality.

Prior to PEARL, such atmospheric research was conducted at Environment Canada’s Arctic Stratospheric Ozone Observatory (AStrO). But it was shut down in 2002, leaving a science station in Alert, Alaska, as the only High Arctic research facility in North America.

In response, Drummond and a team of researchers established CANDAC and through it, obtained funding to transform AStroO into PEARL.

“There are very, very few facilities in the world like PEARL,” says Drummond. “Maybe three or four. It’s the only one in Canada and it’s ideally located so that data collected at PEARL can be used in conjunction with data collected by satellites.”

According to Strong, “PEARL has also contributed to the training of more than 40 graduate students, 35 undergraduates, as well as 25 postdocs and research associates. It has contributed unique high-latitude measurements to several global networks and produced significant research results.

“Thanks to Jim’s leadership over the last 15 years,” she says, “PEARL has become an internationally recognized Arctic flagship observatory.”