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SPRI Review 2011: Director’s Introduction

Director’s Introduction

During 2011, staff of the Institute have led or participated in a number of field projects in both the Arctic and Antarctic. The growing significance of environmental changes that are affecting the Greenland Ice Sheet is reflected in the three parties from the Institute that undertook scientific projects there during the year. An extensive set of airborne geophysical measurements was acquired over the fast-flowing outlet glaciers draining westward from the ice-sheet crest during a two-week operation in April. The radar and laser data will allow us to reconstruct not only the thickness and bed topography of these glaciers, but also to make inferences on the presence of water and soft-sediment at the bed which control the rate of flow. Changes in the velocity structure of these major outlet glaciers, and increases in ice loss through iceberg production, are an important reason why global sea-level is rising today. In Cambridge, we are also utilising these observations to guide our numerical-modelling work on the prediction of how these glaciers may respond to future environmental change. Over the same period, measurements of snow density were being made close to the ice-sheet crest in order to calibrate satellite radar-altimetric data which allow the quantification of thickening or thinning of the ice sheet to an accuracy on the order of a few tens of centimetres; again, this information relates to the changing volume of the ice sheet with implications for sea-level change. During the summer, a further group from SPRI worked on the nature and rate of surface-meltwater production, lake drainage and its impact on the velocity of the ice sheet; the amount of surface melting in Greenland has increased greatly in the past decade. Each of these field programmes has been in collaboration with scientists from other British and American universities, with almost one million pounds of funding having been won competitively from the UK Natural Environment Research Council to support the work.

Elsewhere, our research staff have been active in collecting marine-geophysical data together with a Norwegian group north and east of Svalbard; this will yield evidence on the extent and flow of ice at the Last Glacial Maximum about 20,000 years ago. The Director also worked in the Windless Bight area of Antarctica, close to New Zealand’s Scott Base, during December in collaboration with Gateway Antarctica at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. SPRI staff and research students studying Arctic social sciences have also been active in the North; extended visits to communities in Greenland and Siberia, together with participation in traditional hunting and herding activities, have taken place. It is important to much field research in the social sciences and humanities that the researchers spend extended periods with the indigenous groups they are studying, living under local conditions in all seasons and learning indigenous languages; field programmes in this area of the Institute’s activities are often measured in months rather than weeks.

In February, the Institute hosted a visit from HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, marking the end of his period as Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. Prince Philip was briefed on the environmental implications of high-latitude climate change during a lunch-time discussion with senior academic staff. He then toured the Polar Museum, where he viewed exhibits on both the contemporary environmental significance and history of the Arctic and Antarctic. His Royal Highness has supported a number of Institute activities during his time as Chancellor, including the generous loan of his collection of Edward Seago’s Antarctic paintings on two occasions.

Several events and exhibitions to mark the centenary of Captain Scott’s Terra Nova expedition to Antarctica have also been held in the Institute’s Polar Museum during 2011. Exactly one-hundred years to the day from the meeting of the Terra Nova and Amundsen’s Fram in the Ross Sea, a series of historical and scientific talks took place sponsored by the Royal Norwegian Embassy. This was followed by a celebration dinner attended by both British and Norwegian descendants of those aboard the two ships. The collaboration of both the Norwegian Embassy in London and the Director and staff of the Fram Museum in Oslo was much appreciated in the organisation of this event. Later in the year, the Fram Museum also loaned many items into our exhibition on Roald Amundsen in the centenary year of his South Pole expedition; this is thought to be the first exhibition in the UK to have the Norwegian explorer as its focus. This exhibition was replaced, from December, by ‘These Rough Notes’, where diaries, artefacts, painting and photographs of Captain Scott’s last expedition that are not displayed in our permanent exhibition space will be on view for a five-month period around the centenary of Scott’s achievement of the Pole. Also on display was Scott’s diary, kindly loaned from the British Library, open at the very last entry: ‘For God’s sake look after our people’.

Our newly reopened Polar Museum has been an excellent focus for these centenary exhibitions, as well as others on Inuit Dolls and the British Graham Land Expedition of 1934-37. The opening of the latter was attended members of the family of John Rymill, who led the expedition. Visitor numbers over the past year have approached 50,000, and our programme of public outreach to both adults and schoolchildren has continued to grow and develop. Outreach events included the annual Cambridge Science Festival and the summer-holiday ‘Cool Club’ where children met Institute scientists. Our staff have also been busy with requests to film, interview and record in the Institute, and to use the historic photographs from our Picture Library, linked to the Scott centenary. In the autumn, the UK Antarctic Monuments Trust unveiled a new oak sculpture in the Institute gardens in remembrance of those who have died in the pursuit and enabling of science in Antarctica since the ‘heroic era’; the families of many of those who are remembered were at the ceremony.

It is a great credit to our staff, and those generous donors who helped to fund the refurbishment project, that the Institute’s Polar Museum was one of four museums shortlisted for the prestigious Art Fund Prize this year; this was a very significant achievement, providing important national recognition. Scientific recognition also came for the Director through the award of the Louis Agassiz Medal of the European Geosciences Union, presented in Vienna in April.

My thanks go to the staff of the Scott Polar Research Institute, together with our groups of museum, library and archive volunteers, for the efforts they have put into making possible the range and quality of work that we undertake.

Professor Julian Dowdeswell

The Director discussing climate change with the Vice-Chancellor, President Barroso of the European Commission and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh in the SPRI Museum

The Director discussing climate change with the Vice-Chancellor, President Barroso of the European Commission and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh in the SPRI Museum