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Polar Bytes - No. 28/29, October 2003

Polar Bytes - No. 28/29, October 2003

A few words from the Chairman, David Wilson:

The leaves on the Horse Chestnut tree outside my study window have started to yellow and fall amongst the vibrant purples of the Michaelmas daisies. As encroaching Boreal darkness creates long shadows across the lawn, I start to look forward to our Michaelmas lecture series and the Friends Autumn Buffet and Annual General meeting! Nothing lifts the shadows of autumn so well as the cheer of the Friends. Often, when I am visiting SPRI, a lecture or a passing comment will remind me that as we are plunging into winter darkness, the daylight is emerging elsewhere. The Wilson's Storm-petrels, which not so long ago flew past the Cornish coast in their remarkable circumnavigation of the Atlantic, are now well on their way back towards the joys of their breeding burrows in an Antarctic spring. Even today, a quick trip to the coast may turn up late Arctic terns flying past our shores on the long flight from their Arctic breeding grounds to Antarctic waters - but soon they will be gone too, in their search for perpetual summer.

These faint echoes of Polar life touching our shores act as a reminder that the earth is in an inter-connected and continuous flux. Perhaps it is as well to remember this, sometimes, when we read the Polar news. The recent Arctic news-flash of a further collapse in the Ellesmere Island Ice Shelf caused more alarm about global warming in the press. The Ward Hunt Ice Shelf, which was 443 kms2 in size, has now split in half. This has resulted in the loss of freshwater from the Northern Hemisphere's largest epishelf lake which lay in Disraeli Fjord, and it is feared that many of the unique micro-organisms that inhabited it will have been lost. From the Antarctic, the news hasn't been much cheerier, with this Spring's ozone hole being one of the largest on record. Yet sometimes these things seem to me to be a matter of the scale of one's perspective. As an ornithologist, I tend to record changes over a relatively short space of time; as an historian, I tend to record things in the time-span of human generations. Yet talk to a geologist and they talk in terms of change over epochs of many hundreds of thousands of years: mountains do move. So how one interprets these matters depends a good deal on one's perspective. Yet, the earth's polar regions do appear to hold the key to any understanding of large-scale environmental change, acting, if you will, as a barometer for the rest of us. The focus of much press concern around these events did, therefore, seem to be a selfish one: a worry that we ourselves will end up like the microbes of Disraeli Fjord - without a habitat. The question being 'to what extent, if any, are we creating an avoidable acceleration of our own nemesis?' Personally, I would add our co-fauna into this question. We shouldn't forget that the Christmas season will see our own Polar nativity, with the birth of Polar Bear cubs in the cubbing dens of the North. Yet one cannot help but wonder what future such cubs will have when recent news reports tell of high levels of PCB pollution in the Arctic food chain. Further South, September saw the announcement that the list of globally threatened species now includes all of the planet's 21 Albatross species. Long-lining for tuna and toothfish is continuing to produce a catastrophic decline in most Albatross populations and these most beautiful of birds are now endangered.

Such concerns can only have any hope of sensible answers by using as many informed perspectives as possible and this entails dialogue across the traditional boundaries of academic (and other) disciplines. It is a part of our job, I believe, as Friends of the Institute to ensure that the Institute can continue to provide the location for exactly this sort of opportunity for broader, inter-disciplinary dialogue about the Polar regions, as well as specialist excellence - just as Frank Debenham envisaged when he founded it - and in the friendly environment that we all know and love.

To this end, it was a delight to see the Institute host the opening reception for the South Georgia Association's recent conference on the future of South Georgia and with many Friends 'mucking in' to help make the evening a great success. Similarly, anyone who has read the recent SPRI Review cannot have failed to note the remarkable number of publications, in numerous disciplines, which have come out of the Institute recently - and this list did not include publications produced by visiting scholars! We have all contributed to these through our support of the Institute's library and archival resources - ranked amongst the most important polar repositories in the world. Let us strive to keep them that way! For I firmly believe that it will help to make a difference, not just to our heritage but to our future.

Of course, there are plenty of well-publicised suggestions for practical ways in which we can alter our personal behaviour and perhaps have an effect on the Polar environment. In the face of these it may seem odd to suggest that our support for the Friends will help the micro-organisms of Polar Fjords or Polar Bears; but my answer is that in some indirect way it does. Supporting the provision of resources for research on the Polar regions at SPRI is what we are about and this can but help. Perhaps you would also consider something further: standing for the Friends Committee? (see below) Or volunteering at Friends evenings; in the picture library; library; or archives? Perhaps you have some material to donate to the Institute's collections? Or perhaps you can think of a good fund-raising idea? A way to increase our membership? Or a lecture/speaker/event that you would like to see? And whilst you ponder this, please don't forget to buy some Institute Christmas cards (See attachment!), and order your Institute tie!

In the meantime, I will look forward to seeing many of you soon, both at the lecture series and at our AGM and autumn buffet on November 15th. After an autumn of dispiriting Polar environmental news - at least we can look forward to good company, some seasonal good cheer - and all to the cause!

Nominations for the Committee:

Nigel Back, the Deputy Chairman, retires from the Committee in December and, on behalf of you all, I thank him for his tireless support in the work of the Friends. I am, therefore, seeking nominations and should you wish to nominate someone please, as per Article 5(v) of our Constitution, send Ann Bean a letter of nomination, with the names and addresses of two seconders, together with a letter from the nominee giving his/her agreement to serve on the Committee. Please forward nominations to Ann by 31st October - these may be sent by email ( with the paperwork following thereafter.

Passing Friends

We are very sorry to note the deaths of the following Friends: Roma Stephenson (wife of Alfred Stephenson) and Ann Simpson (wife of Jim Simpson). Both Roma and Ann were very generous to the Institute, particularly to the archive. We are also sorry to note the death of Captain Leonard Hill, who commanded the Royal Research Ship Discovery II before the Second World War and rescued Lincoln Ellsworth, and Hollick-Kenyon after their historic trans-Antarctic flight in 1935. He was a Friend for over 25 years. Our condolences are extended to their families.

A few words from the Director, Julian Dowdeswell:

Over the past few months, Institute staff and research students have been active in both polar regions. The research has encompassed the physical sciences and the humanities. Research locations have included Svalbard, Iceland and Siberia in the northern high latitudes, and the Antarctic Peninsula and Pine Island Bay regions of Antarctica. Research papers by Institute staff continue to be published regularly in the academic literature; for example, Dr. Andrew Shepherd has an article on the Larsen Ice Shelf appearing in the prestigious international journal 'Science' later this month.

In the Institute, reorganisation of the research space on the top floor of the building is almost complete. In addition, a number of colour poster displays highlighting the research work of Institute staff will appear shortly in the Museum.

Work continues behind the scenes on the Institute Appeal. Our efforts have been aided by support from the University's Development Office. Over £30,000 has been raised so far, and we are grateful to the many Friends who have contributed.

A few words from the Secretary, Ann Bean:

Since the last Polar Bytes, which included an advance order form for an Institute tie, the shop has received orders for 22 ties. This is roughly half the number of orders which are required in order to make the tie a commercially viable proposition. If you are interested in seeing this project go ahead, would you please place an order - with many thanks to those of you who already have!

The Institute Christmas card for 2003 depicts the Antarctic dome frieze by Macdonald Gill (1934) in the Museum, and forms a companion to the reproduction of the Arctic dome frieze produced as last year's Christmas card. Samples were not available as Polar Bytes went to press - but the cards will shortly be available and an order form is enclosed. Please do support this important part of our fund-raising.

Paul Davies has produced a very informative leaflet entitled "Scott of the Antarctic and Plymouth's Antarctic Connections" detailing Scott's association with Plymouth and listing sites of special interest. Copies maybe obtained from City of Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery.

Polar Bytes on the web! All editions of Polar Bytes since 1998 are now available on line

A very warm welcome is extended to all of our new Friends who we hope will be able to join us on Saturday 15th November for the Lecture, AGM and Autumn Buffet. Order form for buffet tickets is enclosed [with the paper versions of this newsletter].

Please remember that the lecture by Michael Tarver, of the Captain Scott Society, on the history of the sealing and exploration ship, Terra Nova will be at 5pm.

Christmas gift ideas:

The SPRI shop has a few signed copies of Sir Ranulph Fiennes' new biography of Captain Scott. Captain Scott was published in early October by Hodder and Stoughton. (£25 including UK postage and packing).

A children's book Ponko and the South Pole by Meredith Hooper and illustrated by Jan Ormerod is the story of a penguin and a bear trying to find the South Pole. Ponko, the penguin, is based on the penguin belonging to the photographer Herbert Ponting, who went to Antarctica with Captain Scott, and Joey Bear on the bear taken by Frank Debenham on the same expedition. A beautifully illustrated book suitable for younger children - price £10.99 (plus p&p)

Also available a soft toy penguin copied from the original toy (based on the Adelie penguins which appear in many of Ponting's photographs). Height 250mm. Price £9.99 (plus p&p)

The SPRI shop has a good selection of Polar Books, cds, prints, stamps and other collectibles - a splendid place to shop for Christmas gifts! For the full catalogue see the website or call the SPRI office 01223 336540