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Polar Bytes - No. 48, July 2008

Polar Bytes - No. 48, July 2008

From the Chairman, Robin Back

Dear Friends,

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Our Summer Lunch took place in the Institute on 7th June. The lunch was well attended and we were pleased to be able to launch “Deb”, Peter Speak’s new biography of Frank Debenham, founder and first Director of the Institute. Peter was able to attend, despite recent illness, and to launch the book in style with a short presentation before lunch on Deb as explorer, lecturer, professor and family man. This book fills an acknowledged gap in the polar bibliography and can be ordered from the SPRI shop (an order form is enclosed with this mailing). Peter Clarkson was present to represent the Institute and recorded thanks to the Friends for our support, as well as outlining some current projects with which SPRI is involved. Huw Lewis-Jones, Curator of Art, was also on hand to explain how Friends’ funds have been spent in recent months in support of the Library, Museum and Archives.

After a most enjoyable lunch, where the chat volume sometimes went off the scale, we heard from Jennifer Murray, level 1 sledger in 2008, but best known for her renowned round-the-world helicopter flight via both poles in 2007 (her helicopter circumnavigation in 1997 being the first by a woman and thus earning an entry in the Guinness Book of Records). Sledging was a new departure for her, but a worthy challenge and she looked forward to helping the Friends develop this aspect of our activities.

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Cathy Cooper, Committee member, experienced sledger and husky-fan, took us through this year’s ‘Extreme’ sledging expedition. She showed us wonderful photographs of the stunning mountain scenery taken on the Norwegian/Swedish/Finnish border country of northern Scandinavia, at dog camps and whilst on the trail. Even for those familiar with ice and mountains, the photographs were spectacular. Cathy finished by repeating Jennifer’s call for those present to consider who amongst their acquaintance might best enjoy such an adventure and to introduce them to the possibility of joining a future sponsored activity. Cathy finished with photographs of the proposed Greenland trek in 2009 to the Kangja Ice Fjord, possibly one of the most critical measuring points for global climate change.

Friends were also advised that the changes to the constitution to create the position of Vice- Chairman, balloted in January, have been approved by the necessary majority and therefore come into immediate effect. Two members of your committee, Paul Davies and Pauline Young, stand down at the end of the year leaving two vacancies. We look forward to new candidates coming forward before the AGM.

As work on the Museum refurbishment will have begun by the time of next year’s summer lunch, we are working on something quite different and will announce details at the AGM.

Photographs © Bonnie Pickard

From the Institute

A few words from the Director, Julian Dowdeswell

Two of our field parties have recently returned from the Arctic. The group in Svalbard was led by one of our Lecturers, Dr Poul Christoffersen. Poul’s group were investigating Vestfonna – a 2,500 km2 ice cap on the west side of Nordaustlandet, at the far eastern side of the archipelago. Laboratory work using satellite imagery has shown that the flow structure of this ice cap is in two parts: the ice is flowing mainly at only a few metres per year, but several fast-flowing elements, known as ice streams, move much faster, at tens to hundreds of metres per year. Poul’s work was to place devices on the ice cap surface to measure movement, both horizontal and vertical. The vertical change will show whether the ice cap is getting thinner or thicker, and will be understood better when data loggers are retrieved on a second field campaign next year.

Liz Morris, a Research Associate of the Institute, was on the Greenland Ice Sheet, making measurements of the density structure of near-surface snow accumulation. The nature of the snow at and close to the surface is important to our understanding of the way in which energy at gigahertz frequencies is reflected off or penetrates into the shallow snow. Satellite radar altimeters operating at such frequencies are the main method by which changes in elevation are assessed over large areas in the interior of ice sheets, with implications for mass gain or loss and, hence, for global sea-level change. Both these field parties were funded by grants from the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council and show the important links between field and satellite investigations of the Earth’s ice cover.

In the Institute, all of our senior academic staff have been involved in undergraduate examinations in the past few weeks. We teach undergraduate courses in glaciology, glacial geology and about the peoples of the Arctic. First year lectures are usually attended by about one hundred students, and second and third year courses by about fifty and forty, respectively. With three essays per candidate, this is a fair amount of marking.

In anticipation of the series of anniversaries of polar expeditions that are coming up over the next few years, I am delighted to say that Dr David Wilson has agreed to become the chair of our newly established Centenary Committee. We will be planning a number of events, culminating in 2012. David will need little introduction, having been Chair of the Friends until quite recently.

Finally, my new Assistant, Kate Gilbert, began at SPRI at the beginning of June. Many of you will be seeing Kate at Friends events and will also be interacting with her by phone and at SPRI. I am sure you will join me in welcoming Kate to the Institute.


Captain Ross; or, The Hero of the Arctic Regions

Saturday 8 November 2008

An Epic-Heroic-Magnetic-Melodrame!

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On Saturday 8 November the lecture theatre at SPRI will host a special gala performance of the play ‘Captain Ross’, a favourite of the London theatres in the 1830s. Based upon a recently discovered original script, and combined with popular songs of the period, the play will be recreated in miniature upon a Regency Toy Theatre, with a number of actors providing the colourful characters with their voices.

The play is a celebration and fictitious reworking of Captain John Ross’s second voyage in search of a northwest passage, which left London in the summer of 1829. By 1833 it was assumed that Ross, and his entire party, had perished amongst the ice, but perfectly on cue the explorer was saved. He returned to England to be met with a rapturous reception.

Within a few weeks of his heroic return a number of London theatres were arranging fashionable theatricals in his honour. ‘Captain Ross’ opened at the Pavilion Theatre on the busy Whitechapel road late in 1833, and soon it was playing in theatres across the country. Other spectacles and gala performances were also mounted and Ross became the ‘Lion of the Season’.

Tickets will be available at SPRI from 1 September, priced at 10 Guineas (£10.50)

Official handover of The Transglobe Expedition archive, 1979-1982

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Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Joan and Jane Cox

Sir Ranulph Fiennes, described by the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s greatest living explorer, came to the Institute on Thursday, June 19 for the official handover of his Transglobe Expedition collection. The expedition – the first circumnavigation of the globe on its polar axis by surface means – has been heralded as the last truly great example of the expeditionary age. It was carried out without air transport, although Twin Otters were used to support the Antarctic leg of the expedition, and has not been replicated since.

The 100,000-mile route took the Transglobe Expedition team across the Sahara via Tombouctou, through the swamps and jungles of Mali and the Ivory Coast, over huge unexplored crevasse fields in Antarctica, through the inhospitable North West Passage, graveyard of so many famous venturers, and into the unpredictable hazards of the Arctic Ocean.

Starting from Greenwich on September 2, 1979, they arrived at the South Pole on December 17, 1980. Over the next 14 months, they went north again, reaching the North Pole on April 11, 1982. Traveling south once more, they arrived again in Greenwich on August 29, 1982.

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David Hicks and Sir Ranulph Fiennes
In the background, Ken Cameron and Julian Dowdeswell

Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ donation of his entire collection of material relating to the expedition includes the complete records kept by Fiennes and his team at the time, logs of all the radio communications, maps and more than 500 images in total.

We were especially pleased that so many members of the Transglobe Expedition team and invited guests were able to join us on the day. During the morning, Sir Ranulph, following in the footsteps of Scott and Shackleton, added to the Institute’s collection of penguins sketched in chalk on a blackboard.

Professor Julian Dowdeswell said, 'We are delighted to accept the Transglobe collection as the outstanding example of a modern private expedition to the poles. The fact that both the North and South poles were included in the venture make it a unique addition to our extensive archives of British Polar history'.

Heather Lane, Librarian and Keeper of Collections, added ‘The value to future research of modern archives such as this should not be underestimated. We are enormously grateful to Sir Ranulph for his generosity in choosing SPRI as the permanent repository for the Transglobe material.’

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Peter Bowring and Sir Ranulph with the model of the Benjamin Bowring

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Gerry Nicholson

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Prof. Julian Dowdeswell and Heather Lane admire the latest addition to the collections

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Anton Bowring

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All photos © SPRI 2008

Heritage Collections’ News

From the Archives Manager, Naomi Boneham

Freeze Frame: Historic Polar Images

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Conserve, Digitise, Explore

Project News. As the Freeze Frame project enters its second year, our dedicated team are working on preparing the images, cataloguing and creating a series of information packages to stand alongside them. The first set of images will be available towards the end of September and a separate domain name has been applied for.

Working closely with a team from the Centre for Applied Research in Educational Technologies (CARET), we are in the process of designing a new set of web pages to provide access to the full catalogue, contextual information and educational resources.

New ARCHIVAL Acquisitions

John Barnes and family kindly donated the diaries and photographs of his uncle H.R. ‘Bob’ Young, who was a member of both of Admiral Byrd’s first two Antarctic expeditions, 1928-1930 and 1933-35. We were particularly pleased to discover that both expeditions were represented - John was unaware of this until we realised that part of the material was written during Byrd’s first attempt on the Antarctic aboard the vessel City of New York.

The second acquisition is a mixture of letters all addressed to William Bradford, relating to nineteenth century Arctic exploration. Correspondents include John Rae, Lady Franklin, Charles Hall and George Nares, and the collection also includes a diary by J. Purvis of the Antarctic voyage of Discovery II from 7 October to 21 December 1930. We would like to thank the Friends for their generous support in assisting with the purchase of the Bradford collection.

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© SPRI Museum (ref. Y: 2008/9)

The Friends also provided matching funding for an MLA/V&A Purchase Grant Fund award of £8,250 towards the purchase of a sketchbook produced by the 19th-century Kilamiut (West Greenlandic) artist Isak fra Igdlorpait. This very fine sketchbook, produced by a naive Greenlandic artist, documents everyday life in Greenland at the end of the 19th century The illustrations, colourfully executed in a simple style, are accompanied by explanatory notes in Greenlandic written by the artist and translations of those notes into Danish by a later owner. Images include representations of boats, fishing, hunting, native costumes, icebergs, the landscape, buildings, local birds, and fish and other sea creatures. Not surprisingly, the majority of the drawings are concerned with boats, fishing, and other activities related to the sea (or the ice). Only two other picture-books by Isak fra Igdlorpait are known to exist, both of which are in public collections in Europe. This is an important early instance of native Greenlandic art on paper, of which there are very few extant examples.


Membership Secretary, Ann Bean, writes: A very warm welcome is extended to all new Friends. Membership currently stands at 656.We are very pleased to welcome our 2008 sledgers to 80° and 90° Club membership.

Some dates for your diary:

2008 Michaelmas Term Lectures -
11th October: Bob Burton
25th October: Chris and Vikky Furse
(Big Draw, Cambridge Festival of Ideas Weekend)
8th November: AGM and performance of “Captain Ross”
22nd November: Denis Wilkins
2009 29th March-4th April: Sponsored Sledging
17th-26th July: Greenland Trek

SPRI Director awarded RGS Founder’s Medal

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Special congratulations go to our Director, Professor Julian Dowdeswell, on the award of the RGS Founder’s Medal for 2008. This is one of the two most prestigious medals awarded by the Royal Geographical Society and was presented to him at the 2008 RGS-IBG AGM on 2 June, at the Society's headquarters in central London, for his work in the encouragement, development and promotion of glaciology. Julian joins a long list of distinguished recipients, including John Biscoe, Sir John Ross, Sir George Back, Sir James Clark Ross and Dr John Rae.

Photograph © Celene Pickard

Other News:

From the Antarctic:

News from UKAHT, that preservation of the hut Cape Evans has begun in earnest with major works to protect the structure from encroaching damp undertaken during the last austral summer. A team of conservators are overwintering at Scott base to conserve some 500 items from the hut. The whole project is estimated to take 5 years to complete.

The 140th anniversary dinner of Capt Scott’s birthday at the Royal Corinthian Yacht Club in Plymouth on 6th June was delightful evening, well supported by the nascent Devon & Cornwall Polar Society and organised by committee member Paul Davies.

From the Arctic:

Pressure is increasing on the Arctic and sub-Arctic wilderness regions of Canada and Alaska to allow energy companies to explore for reserves. Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the USA met in Greenland early in June to discuss, inter alia, how development of the Arctic regions might proceed. Analysts speak of the potential resources under the Arctic Ocean floor and adjacent coastline as the equivalent of 30% of Saudi Arabia’s output.

SCAR/IASC IPY Open Science Conference – this 5-day meeting, in association with the XXX SCAR Meeting, begins in St Petersburg on 8th July and is followed by the SCAR delegates meeting in Moscow, 14th-16th July. The IPY Joint Committee has endorsed this event as the first in a series of international interdisciplinary IPY conferences. It is co-sponsored by the International Council for Science (ICSU) and the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO).

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