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Polar Bytes - No. 47, April 2008

Polar Bytes - No. 47, April 2008

From the Chairman, Robin Back

Dear Friends,

Much of this issue comes via electronic wizardry as Marilyn and I are in NZ/Australia on family duty for almost all of March. However, technology being what it is, antipodean visits are no excuse! First however, I must report the sad death of Sir Edmund Hillary on 11th January 2008 after our previous Polar Bytes had gone to press. Much has been said in tribute for his mountaineering prowess, his polar skills and above all for the amount of development he was able to stimulate on behalf of and for the Sherpa people of Nepal. He is much missed.

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Our intrepid March 2008 sledging team
Photo © Peter Bond

I am also able to report a very successful first dog-sledging trip for March 2008. 11 fit and enthusiastic volunteers left on 2nd March and returned a week later with great tales. Hopefully there will be time at the Summer Lunch to hear many of them and to see some of the photographs! By the time you read this, our extreme sledgers will also have returned. I expect their tales could be somewhat more hair-raising!

Which brings me to the Summer Lunch and to remind you that this takes place on Saturday, June 7th at the Institute. Details and application forms for tickets are enclosed. Numbers are limited, so please make sure you book early.

Thank you also to all members who have returned their voting papers for the new position of Vice Chairman of your committee. The result will be announced in the July Polar Bytes in good time before the next AGM.

As part of the beefed up management structure of the Friends, your committee has appointed Judy Skelton as Treasurer. Judy will work closely with Judy Heath at the Institute who is primarily responsible for accounting for the Friends funds. Judy Skelton’s skills in assembling financial data will relieve Judy Heath of a considerable burden, which has grown in recent years because of the sledging activities and is likely to increase with other activities we plan in the future.

Talking of which we have deferred our Greenland Trek plans to 2009. This is a more difficult expedition to setup and proved too much for us to handle in the time available this year. On the positive side, those people who have not been able to sign up for 2008 are now welcome in 2009.

From the Secretaries: Membership Secretary - Ann Bean

New Friends

A very warm welcome is extended to all new members.

Membership is currently 633 – Friends leaving being evenly balanced by new Friends joining. We look forward to welcoming this year’s Dog Sledgers as Friends.

Some Dates for your Diary

At the Institute: 7th June, Summer Lunch at the Institute
17th May, Special guest lecture, Dr Mike Stroud (ticketed event)
11th October, Michaelmas Term lectures begin
25th October, Art Open Day (Arts Festival)
8th November, AGM & performance of Captain Ross
Elsewhere: Plymouth: Friday, 6th June 2008: A dinner on the occasion of Captain Scott’s 140th Birthday following a lecture by Dr. David Wilson.

From the Institute

A few words from the Director, Julian Dowdeswell

I have just come back from an early spring visit to Svalbard, where the light is increasing at the rate of over half an hour per day. The temperature was a brisk -20 degrees C, and with a 15 knot wind it felt very cold. Looking out over Adventfjorden and Isfjorden from the main settlement of Longyearbyen, it is evident that there is again little winter sea ice in these areas. This is probably due to the presence of relatively warm Atlantic water in these fjords, which makes the production of a continuous sea-ice cover difficult. I will be in Svalbard again in the summer and will be able to observe the front positions of some of the glaciers. These glaciers, along with most ice masses around the world, have been in retreat for some time.

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Weak sun over Isfjorden and its southern cliffs in early March. Note the absence of sea ice in the fjord.
Photo © Julian Dowdeswell

The Institute was saddened to learn of the death of Sir Edmund Hillary in January. Sir Edmund was one of the most famous explorers of the twentieth century. His conquest of Everest with Tenzing Norgay in 1953 was followed by his pivotal role in the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. On behalf of the Institute, I will be attending a Memorial Service at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, to celebrate his life and achievements.

News of staff changes at the Institute. We welcome Tim Banting, Sally Verrall and Mel Rouse, who join the JISC-sponsored Freeze Frame digitisation project. Sadly, we also have to report that Liz Crilley will be leaving SPRI in mid-May to take up a part-time post elsewhere in the University, so that she can spend more of her free time with her family. I will be very sorry to see her go, as we began working at the Institute within a month of each other six years ago and have always worked very happily together. Liz, as many of you will know, is an exceptional person who has been a great help to, and a great supporter of, SPRI. I am sure that you join me in wishing her well for the future.

Heritage Collections’ News

From the Archives Manager, Naomi Boneham

Support from the Friends for the Archives has enabled the bespoke boxing of two important items. The midshipman logs of Captain Scott, recently purchased at auction, provide a fascinating insight into his early career and the series of delicate watercolours bound into the logs show his prowess as a draughtsman. Although brief the final diary of Sir Ernest Shackleton, from his expedition aboard Quest, contains his poignant last entries which make for captivating reading.

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LS99/4/4 © SPRI

Demand from readers for desk space remains high and visitors request a very varied range of material. Projects for 2008 include the repackaging of the newspaper collections and the stamp collections to make them more accessible to researchers. This is all made possible through the support of the Friends. We aim, whenever possible, to put newly deposited material on display in the Museum for a short period before it is returned to the safety of the archive store and opened to researchers.

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P2007/24/16 © SPRI

Our photographic negatives are a unique resource but also an extremely fragile one. Funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), SPRI is now in the second year of a two year project to make some 20,000 images from the collection available online. The two shown here are of a polar bear cub from Leigh Smith’s voyage of the Eira, c.1880, and Dr Davidson (left) and Lieut Evans (right) standing on the deck of the Morning, Antarctic Relief Expedition 1901-04. All the images will be placed online and accompanied by detailed catalogue entries and selections from related documents in the Archive collections to provide both historical and cultural context.

The project is now entering its final year with a projected delivery date of March 2009. Four dedicated members of staff, including an education officer, are working on the digitising, cataloguing and dissemination of the images.

Information on the project is available from the Project Manager, Naomi Boneham, at the Institute and at

From the Keeper of Collections, Heather Lane

The Museum’s object handling collection has benefited greatly from the recent donation by Noel Riley of kit, including a tent used on the British Graham Land Expedition, clothing and items collected in Greenland by her father, Quintin Riley. It has been given to SPRI with the express intention that it be made available to school groups, and our Schools Liaison Officer Rosalyn Wade, reports that it is very popular.


Joint meeting with the South Georgia Association, 23rd February 2008

Bob Burton writes: As this was a joint meeting with the South Georgia Association and Friends of SPRI, as well as a public lecture, all attendees to this festival of historic films were invited a drink or two beforehand. So, with the addition of about 50 members of the SGA and their guests, the lecture theatre at SPRI was unusually packed and lively. Some had come from far afield. George Spenceley, veteran of Duncan Carse's 1950s South Georgia Survey, came from Banbury, while Michael Gilkes, who had been medical officer at Leith Harbour whaling station in the same period, arrived all the way from Brighton.

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Richard Ralph, Chairman of SGA
Photo © Rolf Williams

The journeys were worthwhile because Bob Headland had compiled a programme of films that are rarely seen, and he presented them in his inimitable, entertaining and knowledgeable style.

The earliest cine film of South Georgia was taken by Frank Hurley of the Endurance expedition who returned to the island in 1917 to get some replacement material after the loss of the ship. We then saw the film that had been made during the Quest expedition, which included shots of Shackleton's grave at Grytviken. Perhaps the most interesting item was a film of the Kohl-Larsen Expedition, which was the first to explore the inland of the island. The party consisted of Ludwig and Birgit Kohl-Larsen accompanied by the cinematographer Albert Benitz who prepared the first commercial film of the island.

Some of the remaining films were about whaling, ancient and modern. The smoke and bustle of whaling stations in operation impressed those who know them only as 'ghost towns'. The research and survey from Discovery II in her 1933-35 commission was featured. The Argentine invasion of 1982 and Bob Klusniak working for Nigel Bonner on the newly established museum at Grytviken then appeared. The programme finished with an extract from one of Duncan Carse's films about South Georgia where he reminisced about events a quarter of a century ago. In total, selected excerpts of eight films ranging over eight decades were shown.

Forthcoming Guest Lecture, 17th May 2008

Mike Stroud “From Ice to Dust – Travels to Extremes”

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Mike Stroud is best known for his record-breaking undertakings with Sir Ranulph Fiennes. They first teamed up between 1986 and 1990 when they made several attempts to reach the North Pole on foot and unsupported. These included a journey from Siberia that raised more than £2.4 million for the Multiple Sclerosis Society. Following this, they switched their attention to Antarctica and the South Pole where in 1992/93 they succeeded in completing the first unaided walk across the continent from coast to coast. This entailed more than 1400 miles on foot without help from other men, animals or machines, dragging their supplies and equipment behind them. On his return Mike was awarded the OBE for ‘Human Endeavour and Services to Charity’ and the Polar Medal for ‘Services to Arctic and Antarctic exploration’. The journey raised a further £2 million for the MS Society.

Since that last Polar journey, Mike has continued his interest in extremes, with ventures including the 1994 ‘Marathon of the Sands’ - a Trans-Sahara multi-marathon, and the 1995 and 96 ‘Eco-Challenge’. In April 2002, Mike completed the first unsupported, non-stop run across the Qatar desert, covering 200 km in just 3 days. Most recently, he and Sir Ranulph completed 7 marathons, in 7 days, on 7 different continents for charity.

Mike’s presentation, to be held at 7pm on 17th May in the Chemistry lecture theatre (opposite SPRI main entrance) will give an account of these ventures. Tickets cost £10 and are available from the Institute (application form enclosed.)

Other News

From the Antarctic:

Wilkins Ice Shelf

Julian Dowdeswell writes:

I have just seen the first satellite images showing the breakup of part of the Wilkins Ice Shelf at the south west end of the Antarctic Peninsula. The total area of the Wilkins is about 5,000 km2, and so far about 450 km2 has broken up. More could follow over the coming days. The Wilkins Ice Shelf appears to be following a pattern established in the 1990s, with breakup of the Larsen A and B ice shelves on the east side of the Peninsula. It is thought that these floating areas of ice, fed from glaciers on the mountainous peninsula, break up when meltwater persistently enters crevasses at their surface, thus weakening them to the point of fracture. This idea would fit with observations that the Antarctic Peninsula has warmed by up to 3º C over the past 50 years. This is unlike the climate of the rest of Antarctica, which has appeared more stable over the period of instrumental records. Such ice shelves make no contribution to global sea-level change as they are already afloat, although connected to parent glaciers at their upstream ends.

The British Antarctic Territory Launches its own Currency

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To commemorate the Centenary of Granting of Letters Patent in 2008 the British Antarctic Territory (BAT) is issuing its first ever legal tender commemorative coins. An official press launch will take place at Pobjoy Mint Ltd on 16th April, attended by representatives of the Government of the BAT, the British Antarctic Survey, SPRI and the UKAHT. The coins will be issued in cupronickel and sterling silver versions in £2 denominations, retailing at £9.95 and £44.95 respectively.

Both coins will feature the BAT crest on the reverse and HM effigy on the obverse. The sterling silver version will come in a presentation case with a certificate of authenticity signed by the Administrator of the BAT. Although the coins will be legal tender within the Territory they will appeal mainly to collectors and Antarctic tourists.

The UK’s claim in Antarctica is the oldest of any made on the Continent. The BAT is administered in London as an Overseas Territory by staff in the Polar Regions Unit of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and has its own legislative framework, together with both judicial and postal administrations.

A BAT Currency Ordinance of 1990 makes provision for coinage for the Territory. The BAT receives revenue mainly from income tax on over-wintering scientists and stamp sales. It is intended that the additional revenue generated from coin sales will be used to help fund a range of special projects to underpin good governance of the Territory. The UKAHT will stock the coins at Port Lockroy this season, but they may also be purchased directly from the UKAHT at or by writing to the Trust.

From the Arctic

Soot linked to polar ice melt

Particles released by the burning of wood, dung and diesel fuel cause more global warming than previously thought, according to a study released by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. The paper, by Veerabhadran Ramanathan of the University of California at San Diego and Greg Carmichael of the University of Iowa, suggests soot may cause global warming equivalent to 60% of that caused by the world's carbon dioxide emissions. Previous studies have suggested that soot can settle on glaciers and polar ice sheets, absorbing sunlight and melting the ice. The study also says 25-35% of soot pollution comes from wood and dung fires, often used for cooking in India and China, but that on a per capita basis the United States and Europe produce the same amount of black carbon with diesel-burning engines.

New approach to oil spills in Arctic waters

The Oil Spill Recovery Institute (OSRI), established after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil tanker disaster, has linked up with InnoCentive, an Internet company which offers prizes on behalf of clients seeking scientific and engineering help. Seeking new ideas for cleaning up oil spills in Arctic and sub-Arctic waters, OSRI recently awarded $20,000 for an idea for promoting the flow of oil; cleanup crews store oil from spills in floating barges, but often have trouble emptying the liquid in freezing conditions. The solution came from John Davis, a U.S. consultant who holds a master's degree in chemistry. Although he had no background in the oil industry, Davis had experience pouring concrete. He suggested inserting pneumatic vibrators into the barges that the concrete industry uses to keep its material flowing.

We are most grateful to Peregrine Adventures for sponsoring this edition of Polar Bytes.
More details at

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