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SPRI Review 1999: Director's Introduction

Director's Introduction

Professor K.S. Richards

The last year has been one of consolidation after the chaos of the previous two (chaos, that is, while the building work lasted, but at least with the expectation that a far-from-strange attractor - the Shackleton Library - was to be the end of the affair). Indeed, the highlight of the year for the Institute was a celebration of this happy conclusion, when the Chancellor, HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, elected to include a tour of the Institute on one of his regular visits to the University. He spent an hour in the Institute on the morning of 28 June, accompanied by the Lord Lieutenant, the Vice Chancellor, the Secretary General, and the Chairman of the Council of the Physical Sciences (Professor Brian Johnson, who is also Chairman of the Institute's Committee of Management).

This was an extremely enjoyable and successful occasion, and provided an opportunity for the Institute to display both its enhanced accommodation and its active research. The Chancellor first ascended the rotunda, traversed the Wubbold Room (to learn about Captain Joe Wubbold's management of the building work), and was then treated to a review of current Institute research. Dr Neil Arnold was in the field (on Svalbard) at the time, and so I had to explain his animated simulation of the advance and retreat of the Scandinavian ice sheet, before handing over to Dr Peter Wadhams and his team for an explanation of the role of the Odden Ice tongue in the thermohaline circulation, and of the combined top-down and bottom-up observation of sea-ice thicknesses (using satellite imagery and submarine sonar). Dr Gareth Rees then outlined his team's remote sensing studies of environmental damage in the Russian Arctic, with particular reference to innovative studies of the effects on Arctic vegetation of pollution from smelters in Noril'sk. Finally, Dr Piers Vitebsky summarised his group's research on social and cultural changes amongst indigenous peoples in Siberia - especially the reindeer herders who are affected by - and also affect - the vegetation change monitored by Dr Rees.

Following this, the Chancellor returned to the Library, to the Friends' Room, to be shown a collection of Edward Wilson's paintings of birds and a display of items relating to his own visit to Antarctica in 1957. There was also an opportunity to discuss the interesting project in which the Institute has attempted to resolve the question of the origins of a scattering of wooden ship's timbers on a beach on Elephant Island. Measurements of the lengths of spars on Hurley's photographs of Shackleton's Endurance after the break-up suggested that the spars on the beach were too long for it to be likely that they were remains of this famous ship. Dendroclimatology also seemed to rule out the timber being Scandinavian (which is where Endurance was built), but an increasing possibility to emerge from Bob Headland's records was Charles Shearer, a whaler built in New England around 1855, which disappeared without trace in 1877. This project provided a fitting demonstration of the way in which the Institute's archives can be combined with its scientific expertise to investigate an unusual and interdisciplinary problem in polar history - just as the scientific presentations earlier in the Chancellor's visit demonstrated the range of its interdisciplinary research activity. This is particularly well represented at present by the European Commission-funded BASIS, which is concerned with monitoring environmental change and establishing frameworks for environmental impact assessment and management in the Barents Sea region.

This was therefore an excellent opportunity to show off the Institute and its research. However, we were also proud to learn, when the Royal Institute of British Architecture announced its awards for 1999, that the Shackleton Memorial Library, against stiff competition, had won one of four awards for the eastern region. The judges' comment read as follows:

This is a well-mannered and well-constructed building that adds significantly to the collection of spaces making up the Scott Polar Research Institute. The existing building consisted of a number of densely packed floors with lots of separate spaces. The new rotunda makes sense of all of this. Various nicely handled touches have been added to the existing building in the form of ceiling lighting systems and areas of display. The most memorable visual idea in the interior is the glass lift, at the opposite end of the entrance lobby to the original shrine to polar exploration. It has the appearance of a shaft of ice that has plunged down through the building. The colour of the glass surround and the way daylight glows through it, deliberately evokes the painting of ice which has been hung opposite to it.

Of course, as well as having the scientific purpose displayed to good effect during the Chancellor's visit, I recall that the origins of the Institute lay in a desire to retain information about polar exploration in order to provide advice and assistance to those attempting future expeditions. It is heartening to see that this tradition is still being maintained. John Ash, together with Lawson Brigham and Bob Headland, averted disaster and (probably) saved a life during the year when, after much discussion, they persuaded a member of the public to revise a plan to cross the Bering Strait in a modified Ford Fiesta during an expedition from London to Mexico! The opportunity to use the size of the polar bear skin in the lecture theatre as a deterrent was strategically advantageous, but it seems that the enquirer may proceed with his enterprise in a modified form. Whether this is likely to involve the more direct route across the Atlantic is not recorded.... Dr Rees suggests that, in anticipation of other approaches for advice on equally post-modern expeditions, the Institute might issue to prospective polar explorers SPRI 'dog tags' bearing the inscription 'The bearer has visited the Scott Polar Research Institute and was advised NOT to proceed to the polar regions.' He also added that these might prove to be popular items to sell in the Museum Shop. Having been Head of the Department of Geography, and having wrestled with the question of risk assessments for students and staff engaged in field work, it is tempting to wonder if the Institute would ever have been founded in this modern world, with the original objectives as recalled above, given that these seem so likely to tempt litigation and a variety of health and safety objections!

I hope that when I report again next year, there will have been further post-Shackleton Library consolidation of the Institute's activities. One might assume that this will not involve further building work, but I somehow doubt that. Indeed, 1999 has seen another significant period of disruption as the roof of the 1960s Ford 'wing' was completely replaced (this after several years of seeking a suitable alternative to obviate the need for a plastic bucket on the top floor whenever it rained). We have also refurbished the basement workshop to provide a more suitable location for electronic design and construction, and hope to provide improved storage in the basement for polar fieldwork clothing. Next year, there will be the opportunity to report on the further enhancement of the Institute's personnel with the appointment of a second social scientist. In addition, the preliminary work on a complete overhaul of the MPhil in Polar Studies took place in late 1999, during a period in which it was decided to hold the course temporarily in abeyance pending this restructuring. When it begins again in 2000-01, we hope that it will be rendered more attractive by an improved structure, better links to other related courses, and a stronger research focus. Finally, I hope to be able to report on ways in which the Institute's links with the British Antarctic Survey have developed. But more of this anon.