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SPRI Review 2007: Director's Introduction

Director's Introduction

The UK launch of the fourth International Polar Year (IPY) took place in March before MPs and guests in the Dining Room of the House of Commons. I was invited to give one of three introductory speeches, outlining the significance of glaciers and ice sheets for global sea-level rise in a warming world, and of changing sea-ice extent and thickness in terms of high-latitude energy balance and the production of dense ocean-bottom water. Members of the Institute are participating in a number of IPY research projects in both the sciences and the social sciences, our library and museum activities are represented in further international IPY activities, and three of our staff are members of the UK IPY Committee. The Institute will, therefore, be playing a full part in this important event, which encompasses thousands of researchers from 60 nations participating in over 200 approved projects.

Our field research programmes continue to be supported by grants from the UK research councils and other funding agencies. Early in the year, I led a research cruise of the UK's ice strengthened research vessel, James Clark Ross, to waters offshore of the Antarctic Peninsula. The aim was to make the first use of Britain's new Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), named Isis, in investigations of the sea floor at water depths from a few hundred to several thousand metres. Stunning images showing both past glacial activity and marine life were obtained from the cameras aboard the ROV, which was operated from the parent ship via an umbilical cable several kilometres long. The robotic vehicle used thrusters to move over the sea floor and had two mechanical manipulator arms that collected geological and biological samples. This innovative work, which was collaborative with several UK institutions, was featured in BBC Radio 4's Material World, with an interview by satellite from the ship, and in the news section of Science.

The Director aboard the RRS James Clark Ross off the Antarctic Peninsula
Image as described adjacent

Field parties from the Institute were also active in the Arctic during 2007, making geophysical measurements of the state of balance of glaciers and ice caps in Iceland and Svalbard. In each area, the evidence acquired from both field and satellite observations showed that the ice was retreating and thinning. Numerical model simulations of the response of the ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica to various future warming trends, undertaken in our science laboratory, also suggest that the rate of ice-sheet response to warming is likely to increase during the coming century. These field and modelling investigations will augment the scholarly papers which continue to be published in a wide range of international journals by Institute staff and research students.

In the Institute, the private correspondence between Captain Scott and Kathleen Scott, generously gifted by the Scott family, was first exhibited in January. Contained within the bound volume was the last letter written by Captain Scott to his wife, which was found with his body. Huge international press interest in these letters was followed by several months of unprecedented numbers of Museum visitors to view both the letters and also the camera which accompanied Scott and his four companions to the South Pole – again a gift from the Scott family.

In the late spring, Bonhams generously enabled us to exhibit in London a selection of items from the Institute's collections, including Scott's last letter, alongside the 'Antarctic paintings of Edward Seago', lent by kind permission of The Chancellor, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh. The exhibition took place at Bonhams gallery in New Bond Street, London from 27 May to 15 June 2007. Several evening receptions were held to promote the work of the Institute. The Chancellor attended a private view of the paintings and a royal visit by Her Majesty the Queen was a particular highlight. This exhibition attracted a large new audience and provided an opportunity to launch the new book of the same name, written by the Director and Librarian.

By a coincidence of timing, receptions at the Bonhams exhibition also provided the setting for two further developments for the Institute. The first was notification from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) of the success of our Stage 1 bid to fund the planning phase of the complete redesign and redevelopment of SPRI's Polar Museum galleries and curatorial spaces. Robert Smith was appointed in September as Museum Project Manager, with the remit to develop the full £1 million Stage 2 bid to the HLF by June 2008. A second important development was the formal establishment of a Museum Acquisitions Fund, with a first instalment of £25,000 presented to the Institute by Robin Back, Chair of the Friends of SPRI.

This support has already enabled us to bid successfully for matching funds from other grant-giving bodies, and to augment our collections of polar art works, documents and artefacts with important new additions such as the logbooks kept by Scott when a midshipman, which include very fine watercolour illustrations. Through a grant of over £400,000 from the UK's Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), we have also begun the 'Freeze Frame' project to digitize about 20,000 of our historic polar photographs in order to make them more accessible.

The year has also seen more special exhibitions than ever before in the Foyer and Museum of the Institute. Notable among these were 'Keith Shackleton: A Polar Retrospective' and 'Art of Exploration: The Polar Vision of Sir Wally Herbert'. It is particularly sad to recall the death of Sir Wally Herbert in June 2007. His achievement in leading the first crossing of the Arctic Ocean in 1968-69 has particular resonance today, given that reductions in Arctic sea-ice cover now render the journey almost impossible.

Finally, it is a pleasure to acknowledge the efforts put in by members of the Institute in mounting the series of exhibitions that many visitors to our Museum have enjoyed, in the provision of library, archival and information services to the international polar community, and towards the further understanding of the changing natural and human environments of the Arctic and Antarctic.