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SPRI Review 2008: Director's Introduction

Director's Introduction

Their Royal Highnesses Princes William and Harry with Professor Dowdeswell in the SPRI museum
Image as described adjacent

The Arctic and Antarctic have, over the past few years, been recognised by scientists and the wider public to be particularly sensitive parts of the global climate system. Huge reductions in summer sea-ice extent in the Arctic Ocean, the increasing rate of mass loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet, and the breakup of floating ice shelves on the Antarctic Peninsula are all manifestations of change. The work of the Institute has as major research themes the changing cryosphere, its glaciers and ice sheets, sea ice and snow. Research grants held by our staff, and won competitively from the UK research councils and charitable trusts, support work on both the behaviour of modern ice sheets and investigations of the geological record of their past fluctuations as the earth has warmed and cooled over the past few million years. These observations are, in turn, used to inform and calibrate computer models that predict how ice may respond to future changes in the climate system that may affect our children and grandchildren. Our research on ice and environmental change is projected through scientific publications, reports to government bodies and NGOs, and also by public outreach that ranges from museum displays to appearances on national radio and television.

The Arctic Ocean has been a particular focus of recent interest for several reasons. Environmentally, its temperature and salinity structure is changing and its sea-ice cover is thinning and shrinking in extent. It is an area rich in hydrocarbons; extraction is beginning in the eastern Barents Sea and geophysical exploration is taking place elsewhere in the Arctic seas. Shipping may use the progressively more navigable route from the Atlantic to the Pacific via the Northwest Passage within the next few decades. The sovereign nations of the Arctic rim countries, and the Arctic Council, are debating the future of the Arctic Ocean and national claims are being submitted to the United Nations Commission for the Limits of the Continental Shelf. In this context, the Institute, in collaboration with the Judge Business School, has established a new research group on Arctic Ocean geopolitics. The group is headed by Dr Paul Berkman, who has a background in oceanography and has also worked previously on topics relating to the Antarctic Treaty System.

The scientific work of the Institute has been widely projected at a variety of levels. In October, their Royal Highnesses Prince William and Prince Harry came to the Institute as part of a visit to Cambridge, focusing on the environment and sustainability. The Director gave the Princes a short introduction to glaciers and ice sheets in a warming world before a tour of the museum and library, emphasising the links between British exploration and the development of our modern scientific understanding of the polar regions. Earlier in the year, the Director was also invited as a science expert on week-long cruise of the National Geographic Endeavour around the Svalbard archipelago. The aim of the trip was to show a group of influential Americans climate change in action. Participants included President and Mrs Jimmy Carter, along with a number of state governors, senators and leading industrialists. Sites of key scientific interest were visited around Svalbard, with the Director describing the changes in glacier extent and behaviour that had taken place recently.

At the Institute, the polar museum has attracted increasing numbers of visitors, partly linked to the publicity associated with new acquisitions and the series of temporary exhibitions that have taken place during the year. In addition, our programme of public outreach to schools continues to grow, with almost 70 organised tours in 2008; a six-fold increase over the position two years ago. This illustrates the important work carried out by Ros Wade, our parttime Schools Liaison Officer. This post, together with that of Archives Assistant and several others relating to the museum, library and archives, are all 'soft money' positions, supported by a series of short-term grants. One of the aims of our Appeal is to support these posts with endowment money to provide longterm underpinning for these activities.

Detail of the façade of the Institute, with penguins
Image as described adjacent

In December, we were notified of the success of our Stage 2 bid for Heritage Lottery Fund support of £1 million for the redesign and refurbishment of our polar museum on the theme of 'exploration into science'. We now have the task of raising £700,000 in matching funds. The programme of alterations to both the museum itself, and the important curatorial, storage and archival spaces that go with it will begin early in the New Year. This is a very important step forward for the Institute in terms of the public projection of both Britain's polar heritage and also the significance of the polar regions as part of the changing global environmental system.

The collections of the Institute continue to grow through the generous donation of materials ranging from sculptures by Inuit artists to letters relating to the planning of early polar expeditions. A particularly important gift this year was the complete archive of Sir Ranulph Fiennes's Transglobe Expedition of 1979 to 1982. Developed by the curatorial team to highlight the image collections, an exhibition and accompanying book by Huw Lewis-Jones, Face to Face: Polar Portraits presented archival photographs of fifty past polar explorers alongside images of fifty contemporary scientists and explorers photographed by Martin Hartley. This exhibition, and another featuring examples of Herbert Ponting's iconic photographs of Scott's last expedition, will both go on tour while the museum is closed for refurbishment next year.

It is, once again, a pleasure to record my thanks to the staff of the Scott Polar Research Institute for the time and commitment that they have shown in making possible the breadth of work that we undertake. The large number of well-produced exhibitions in the museum and foyer of the Institute over the year, and the extensive seminar programmes in both polar physical and social sciences are just two examples of this. Two members of our administration team have left during the year. Judy Heath, who has for many years been our financial manager, has moved with her husband to Africa to undertake voluntary work. Liz Crilley, my Assistant for six years, has also moved to a part-time post in the university. All of us at SPRI thank them for their support.

Professor Julian Dowdeswell