skip to primary navigation skip to content
 

 

SPRI « The Polar Museum: news blog

SPRI

The Women who made SPRI

Thursday, September 10th, 2020

During lockdown, I have been working on a new temporary exhibition which will celebrate SPRI’s centenary year. Though it has been strange to think about a new exhibition, not knowing exactly when it will open or when you will be able to see it, it has been lovely to learn more about SPRI’s history. In particular, it’s been fascinating to uncover the stories of the women whose lives have been linked to SPRI since its inception and beyond. I’d like to introduce you to some of my favourites in the exhibition, and if you’d like to see them again, or learn more about any other women of SPRI (or men, for that matter!) then do come along to our centenary exhibition once the museum reopens.

SPRI

The Founding Mothers

Founded in 1920, SPRI was the brain-child of Terra Nova geologist Frank Debenham, but it took more than one woman to bring his ideas to fruition. Perhaps the most well-known of these early female pioneers was Kathleen Scott, the indomitable widow of Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Kathleen was a well-renowned sculptor in her own right who had studied under Auguste Rodin in Paris long before meeting her future husband. As well as donating several statues to the museum, Kathleen was instrumental in introducing Debenham to the right people to help get SPRI off the ground, and in securing funding for the Institute. Once SPRI had become a reality, British naturalist Oriana Wilson helped to furnish it with some of the most famous polar objects it holds today – her husband Edward Wilson’s Antarctic watercolours. Oriana persuaded Debenham to include a purpose built gallery in the 1934 building, so that the paintings could be put on display and admired.

Kathleen Scott

Kathleen Scott, Captain Robert Falcon Scott and George Frederick Wyatt on the bridge of the ‘Terra Nova’

Oriana Wilson

Oriana Wilson

The Shapers

In the late 1920s the British anthropologist Dr Ethel John Lindgren began a career studying different cultural groups across Inner Mongolia and Siberia. Lindgren gathered knowledge and collected cultural objects from the people she studied, later donating many of these objects to SPRI’s museum collection. Her collection was used to teach aspiring western polar explorers the best ways to deal with the harsh environments they would be facing. Lindgren also lectured the MPhil students at SPRI about the people she had met and their ways of life. Lindgren’s collections, and the many other objects donated to the Institute, had to be accurately recorded and catalogued so that they could be put to good use. In the early days of SPRI, this work fell to women who volunteered their time. Miss W M Drake, arranged and catalogued a good proportion of the collection, including equipment, maps and books. Her meticulous record keeping in all areas ensured the smooth operating of the Institute and its collections and she later went on to paid employment as the official Assistant to the Director. Her work forms the foundations of our records today.

‘Overnight camp on the banks of the Oura’ by Ivan Dmitriyevich Bulychov. Presented to SPRI by Dr E Lindgren.

Miss W M Drake

Miss W M Drake

The Knowledge Holders

Women connected to SPRI were instrumental in the formation of our knowledge about the polar regions. Hilda Richardson was a glaciologist and the only employee of the International Glaciological Society following its creation in 1936. The society, which had its headquarters at SPRI for almost 70 years, became a well-renowned international organisation under her leadership, publishing prestigious academic journals and organising international symposia.

In our understanding of the polar regions, it can be all too easy to only consider western perspectives, but indigenous knowledge is invaluable to understanding and surviving in the Arctic environment. As Dr Lindgren showed SPRI’s early MPhil students, the foremost knowledge holders in the Arctic are the people who live and work there, their ancestors having inhabited the far north for thousands of years. Gusdiana was a Tunumiit from North Eastern Greenland who was instrumental in the expeditions of British explorer Gino Watkins’ in the 1930s. Photographs in SPRI’s archives show Gusdiana sewing kayaks for the western explorers, who would use these traditional boats to hunt seal. Kayaks are made by stretching animal skins over a frame and sewing them together to make a watertight vessel, and this process of stretching and sewing is traditionally done by Inuit women. Without Gusdiana, Watkins and the men of his expedition would not have been able to hunt using these specially designed craft.

Gusdiana

Portrait of Gusdiana

Gusdiana sewing skin on kayak

Gusdiana sewing skin on to a kayak as Gino Watkins watches her work.

Women have been instrumental to SPRI over its 100 year history. Whether by supporting its early years, to ensuring the standard and care of its collections, to making the discoveries and teaching the knowledge which informs its work. SPRI is now home to many female scientists, social scientists, museum, library and archive professionals, financial and administrative staff, and without them, and the women who came before them, the very character of the Institute would not be what it is today.

 

A Brief History of SPRI

Thursday, September 10th, 2020

A lot has changed in the hundred years since the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) was officially founded. In the 1920s, western explorers were still visiting the polar regions in wooden boats, but not fifty years later technology had advanced so much that man had landed on the moon. Another fifty years went by and now scientists and researchers can overwinter at the South Pole – once so inaccessible as to be deadly – in a station fully fitted with comfortable beds, hot meals and internet connection. So, with all the change and upheaval of the last century, what has happened to SPRI?

1920 – The Scott Polar Research Institute started life in the attic of the Sedgwick Museum – crammed full of polar artifacts, equipment and scientific data. In spite of these modest beginnings, the camaraderie and friendly atmosphere which are still characteristic of SPRI today were created by the men and women who visited the attic, united by their interest in the polar regions.

1934 – A group of famous designers collaborated on a purpose-built home for SPRI on Lensfield Road. The renowned architect Sir Herbert Baker designed the building, while MacDonald Gill painted the spectacular domed maps which can still be seen in the Memorial Hall. Captain Scott’s widow, Kathleen – a distinguished sculptor – donated her own works which still keep watch over the Institute above the door and in the garden on Lensfield Road.

Opening day at the new home of SPRI, 1934.

MacDonald Gill and Priscilla Johnston paint the Memorial Hall domes

Bust of Captain Scott by Lady Kathleen Scott

1940s – During World War II SPRI helped the British government research clothing and equipment for Arctic missions. The museum collection at SPRI was initially a teaching collection, designed to equip polar explorers with the hard-won knowledge of their predecessors. During WWII, this specialist knowledge of equipment and polar clothing was especially useful when the War Office was considering a possible northern invasion route into Europe.

1959 – SPRI was heavily involved in setting up the Antarctic Treaty which protects the Antarctic as a continent for scientific research. An incredibly important agreement for the governance of the Antarctic even today, the Antarctic Treaty ensures that nobody owns the Antarctic. It also dedicates the continent as a place for peace and science. SPRI scientists helped to produce this remarkable treaty.

1968 – A lecture theatre, laboratories and ‘cold rooms’ for research were added to the building, more than doubling its size. SPRI is a specialist institute with specialist facilities – as scientific research within the university became ever more advanced, so more unusual features were added to SPRI. Today a large freezer in the basement is used for everything from testing kit to freezing our historic museum collections to protect them from insects and other pests!

The SPRI Lecture Theatre

1970s – SPRI scientists perfected the invention of radio echo sounding. This revolutionary new glaciological technique meant that scientists could fly over the ice sheets and measure how thick they were by emitting radio waves and measuring how long it took them to bounce back to the plane. This technique led to the discovery of a hidden world of lakes and volcanoes beneath the surface of the Antarctic ice sheet.

Radio Echo Sounding

1980 – SPRI welcomed the first students to its brand new Polar Studies program which still runs to this day. SPRI has always been a place of learning – first, it was for collaboration and the analysis of data by early explorers, then it became somewhere for budding polar scientists to benefit from the experience of the past. Today, students at the Institute study everything from the social sciences to climate change.

1998 – The Shackleton Memorial Library opened, securing SPRI’s position as the largest polar library in the world. The library at SPRI is home to an enormous collection of over 54,000 monographs, DVDs, Masters and Doctoral theses, as well as pamphlets, press-cuttings, periodicals and around 18,000 maps. As a resource on the polar regions it is of international importance.

The Polar Library

The Shackleton Memorial Library

2000s – SPRI was a well established hub of polar research and information as public interest in the polar regions continued to rise. As the general public became increasingly aware of the effects of climate change on the polar regions, SPRI’s role as a resource and centre for research on these fragile ecosystems became even more important.

2010 – The Polar Museum underwent a total refurbishment, in time for the centenary of the death of Captain Scott and his companions on their return from the South Pole in 1912. The museum now has permanent displays on the indigenous communities of the Arctic, the western explorers of the Arctic and Antarctic and contemporary scientific research in the polar regions. There is also a dedicated temporary exhibition space.

The Polar Museum

2020 – The Scott Polar Research Institute celebrates 100 years of polar research. So much has changed since the attic days of the early 1920s, and who knows what the next 100 years have in store for SPRI, but if the last century is anything to go by then it’s sure to be busy!

SPRI today

 

Walking on Thin Ice: co-operation in the face of a changing climate

Monday, December 9th, 2019

On the 30th November we were delighted to welcome back our twelve teenage co-curators to celebrate the launch of their exhibition ‘Walking on Thin Ice: co-operation in the face of a changing climate’.

After a week of incredibly hard work in August this year, the then year 12 students had provided our museum team with a detailed framework for their exhibition. Since then, a lot has happened – the student’s ideas have been made into a reality, and the students themselves have moved into year 13 and completed their university applications. Let’s have a catch up.

Welcoming back the student curators

The exhibition is all about climate change – current research, stories of empowerment and hope for the future. The co-curators were adamant that this should not be an exhibition to upset people, but to educate them in up-to-date scientific facts, and encourage them that co-operation is the way forward. The way they wanted this information to be presented is often striking, and there are a number of new features which have not been seen before in our temporary gallery space.

Exhibition display

A large floor sticker can be found in front of the Institute reception desk. A map of the Antarctic, it shows scientific bases located across the continent, as well as the animals which live on and around it. Small flocks of penguins bump up against McMurdo station, while the seas are filled with whales and fish. Bringing a youthful feel to this part of the exhibition, this map has already been a hit with some of our youngest visitors – allowing them to stand on the Antarctic and perhaps imagine themselves as the polar explorers of the future.

Antarctic floor sticker

The inclusion of a ‘voting wall’, with thought-provoking questions set to change over the course of the exhibition, was high on the co-curators’ priority list. With counters to make your views known, it has already sparked conversations within the Institute. Keep an eye on our social media channels for the results.

Voting wall

There is also information about the youth strikes, a topic which was very close to the hearts of our young co-curators. The ‘collage wall’ featuring posters and images from youth strikes in the UK and Inuvik in Northern Canada certainly brings home that this is a global issue, being addressed by a global community. The wall itself has already been incredibly well documented as the backdrop to hundreds of selfies using the hashtag #ThinIceExhibition.

Climate protest wall

Alongside these unusual exhibition features, there is a fantastic selection of objects from the museum’s collection, chosen by the co-curators, and a lot of information about our changing climate. From information about the historic explorers and the data they collected hundreds of years ago, to cutting-edge information about the unprecedented changes we are now recording in atmospheric carbon levels, there is something for everyone to see, read, do and enjoy.

While this has been a fantastic project to bring to life – taking the co-curation team’s ideas and making them a reality – the real highlight was seeing them all again at our launch event. This group of teenagers began the process feeling unsure as to whether Cambridge might be for them, and they all left saying that they felt as if they’d never been away. With university applications for this term now in full swing, we wish them all the best of luck with their further studies, and hope that they know they are welcome back any time!
If you’d like to come and see ‘Walking on Thin Ice’, to vote on the voting wall, stand on the floor sticker and maybe even take a selfie in front of the collage wall, it will be running until the end of March 2020.

A Special Visitor – Part Two. Willy’s Diary

Monday, December 9th, 2019

From the 13th – 20th October we were absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to invite Willy Topkok, an Iñupiaq man and experienced artist, to visit us here at the Scott Polar ResearchInstitute for a week. It was an exciting, interesting and hugely fun experience for everyone involved so we thought we’d share a post of everything Willy got up to during his stay.

Monday 14th October
Monday was Willy’s first full day in Cambridge. After a quick hello to everyone in the Museum and Education & Outreach teams, Willy viewed our current temporary exhibition “Tikigaq:Point Hope, Life on Alaska’s North Slope” sharing his own stories of his Alaskan heritage throughout, followed by a tour of our Polar Library with Librarian Peter Lund.
Next up was lunch with members of the Museum and Library team where, still adjusting to the temperature change from the desert-like temperatures of Arizona (where he currently lives) to a far cooler Cambridge, the first thing Willy ordered was a hot tea!
After re-fuelling, it was time for Willy to have a private tour of the Polar Museum and a behind-the-scenes look in our stores at more of the Alaskan objects we have in our collection.

Willy holding a boot from our Alaskan collection

Later in the day, Willy joined everyone at SPRI for a special afternoon tea break in the temporary gallery of the Polar Museum where he met staff and students alike – all of whom were very pleased to meet him.

Tuesday 15th October
Even after a busy first day, Willy was just as eager to find out what was next in store for him during his visit. To start off his second day, Willy was accompanied by Collections Assistant Mia Surridge for some sight seeing in Cambridge, with a visit to Kings College and a stop at the famous Corpus Clock too. He was thoroughly impressed with the architecture and hearing all about the traditional Carol’s from Kings Christmas Eve service – but mostly he said he just couldn’t wait to show all the pictures to everyone at home!

Willy standing by the Corpus Clock

After working up quite the appetite from touring the streets of Cambridge, Willy then stopped for some much-needed lunch at the University Centre with Mia and Rosie Amos, Education and Outreach Assistant, before heading back to SPRI to give a talk to PHaSS (The Polar Humanities and Social Sciences Workshop) where he displayed his bowdrill and beading work which they were so fascinated by that Willy ended upextending his talk further.
A speedy tea break was had and then it was time for Willy to begin his second talk of the day, this time to a group of volunteers from The Polar Museum front of house team. Much like with PHaSS, there were laughs and gasps from all in the audience (followed by lots of questions) as Willy, dressed in his traditional clothing, demonstrated his amazing storytelling skills.

Willy giving his talk to our volunteersTo round off his day, a certainly well-deserved dinner was had by Willy with the company of Education and Outreach Assistant, Naomi Boneham. After some great food and a good old chat, he was ready to head to get some rest before his next busy day.

Wednesday 16th October
On Wednesday, Willy was accompanied to London for the day by Collections Project Cataloguer Henrietta Hammant, catching the train (or as Willy called it a ‘trolley’) bright and early from Cambridge station. First stop was the British Museum where they had a look at the North American and Asia galleries as well as the Ancient Greek collection – ever-eager to capture every possible moment of his trip, Willy found much joy in not only seeing the displays first hand but making sure he got plenty of photos to show his friends and family back at home too!

Willy standing outside the British Museum

Up next was a quick trip on the tube to Green Park where Willy and Henrietta had a scenic walk to Buckingham Palace. Willy was not only amazed by the palace itself but delighted to find out the Queen was actually at home! Of course, not wanting to waste a second of their day Willy and Henrietta then set off for a walk through St James’ park to get to Westminster Abbey and then to the Houses of Parliament before crossing the river to see the London Eye. It was certainly a day packed full of London must-sees and landmarks and both Henrietta and Willy agreed it was a successful trip indeed!

Willy standing outside Buckingham Palace

Thursday 17th October
After a morning of free time followed by lunch with Henrietta, Willy set off to visit the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology where, after a viewing of their Star Carr exhibition, he met Senior Curator of Anthropology, Dr Anita Herle and Liz Walsh, a PhD student who did her fieldwork on Alaska’s North Slope. Following tea it was then time to head up to the photographic collection to meet Manager of the Photographic Collections, Dr Jocelyne Dudding who shared some fantastic historic images from both Siberia and Alaska, he was even allowed to take some copies home as they featured people who were from his ancestral homelands.
Willy later enjoyed dinner with Liz Walsh where they both had a lovely time talking about Northern Alaska, with perhaps the highlight of all being that Willy was able to speak in a little Iñupiaq to her.

Friday 18th October
Willy started off his morning back in our Polar Library and much to his delight, whilst browsing through some of the books in our collection, he saw the familiar names of both friends and relatives as well as pictures of their artworks featured on the pages. Next, he took some time to have a look at The Polar Museum himself as, being so busy earlier in the week with activities, he hadn’t yet had chance to properly enjoy our collections in his own time!
Later in the day, Willy was due to give a talk in the temporary gallery as part of our Festival of Ideas events at The Polar Museum. Attending visitors received a private insight into the “Tikigaq: Point Hope, Life on Alaska’s North Slope” exhibition. Willy couldn’t have been happier to talk to the many intrigued visitors more personally after his talk.

Willy with a visitor at The Polar Museum

The day didn’t end there though, as Willy then attended both dinner at the University Centre and an Intelligence Seminar at Corpus Christi about ‘KGB “illegal” operations in England’ with SPRI Research Associate Bryan Lintott. Both Willy and Bryan had an enjoyable evening which rounded off Willy’s penultimate day in Cambridge.

Saturday 20th October
On his final day, Willy kindly came along to The Polar Museum’s Family Day where guests could see demonstrations of his skilled beadwork first hand and hear about his love of the Inupiat way of life whilst Willy himself was thrilled at the fact he got to meet people from all over the world – in fact we’re almost certain he spoke to every single one of the 944 visitors we had on the day!
Then before we knew it, and much to everyone’s sadness, it was time to say our goodbyes to Willy, though not without having a quick group photo beforehand of course…

Willy with Polar Museum staff

As a final treat, Henrietta took Willy for a slap-up last supper before he returned to his hotel ready for an early morning flight home to Arizona, after what was an incredibly special and memorable trip.

A Special Visitor – Part One

Monday, December 9th, 2019

One of the real joys of working in museums is being able to invite guests from our ‘source communities’ to see the museum and visit the objects in our care. Source communities are the real people and places which the objects in our collections come from. So building and maintaining relationships with these people and places is incredibly important.
The Institute was thrilled, therefore, to invite Willy Topkok, an Iñupiaq man and artist from northern Alaska, to visit the museum for a week. SPRI has many links to Alaska and to life in the northern reaches of the State, so we couldn’t wait to learn even more from him. Willy came to talk to us about his life and skills as a traditional artist, and even spoke about some of the objects in our collection. “The Polar Museum was excellent. I saw my late grandfather’s name Frank Elanna, with pictures of his beautiful ivory carvings, along with Uncle Mose Millgrock’s ivory carvings, uncle Lincoln Millergrock’s ivory carvings, my cousin Charlie Kokuluk’s ivory carvings. Paul Tiulana, Justin, Eugene Tiulana’s carvings. I was fascinated to see these beautiful names in Cambridge, UK.”

Willy outside the Polar Museum

One of Willy’s favourite topics of conversation is his Iñupiaq heritage and family history, and he charmed many people with his stories during his visit. Willy’s parents hailed from the small villages of Teller and Wales on the west coast of Alaska. This part of the US juts out into the Bering Straight – reaching towards Russia and the International Date Line just a few miles away. Willy’s life is intertwined with these two countries, so culturally different and yet so geographically close.
Willy writes, “My late mother had this tiny little picture in her Bible. She used to always show me the picture and tell me her mother was very good at sewing. This picture was taken in 1926. She [Willy’s mother] was three years old and holding on to her mother’s hand in the picture. She is the little girl on the bottom right. Louise Tungwenuk Topkok Todd, my grandmother, was born about the late 1800s or early 1900s and she did not understand English. The tall young man far left was my grandfather, my mother’s father, he was born in 1881 in Siberian Russia, on Russia’s Big Diomede Island. My grandfather’s half-brother, Spike Millergrock, was from Little Diomede Alaska.”
Willy’s family had a big impact on the direction his life would take, “When I was about eight or ten years old I was forced to learn my native arts like carving walrus ivory, skin sewing. I did not want to learn” but as Willy went on, he began to enjoy learning how to produce traditional artwork. “My grandmother loved to sit beside me while I did my native arts because she loved to see my little Eskimo dancers on walrus ivory scrimshaw. Then she would have hot tea sitting beside me telling me some beautiful stories of my people”.

Willy’s family

Willy became a very skilled artist, specialising in ivory carving, graphic arts, skin sewing, dancing, singing, and of course, story-telling. We were so fortunate to be able to watch Willy beading, demonstrating his sewing techniques and giving us gripping first-hand accounts of what life had been like for him growing up between the villages of Teller and Wales. “Even to this day now I love doing my native arts and I even love to teach my native arts, the past few years I have taught at the University of Alaska Anchorage, Native Arts.” Willy also spoke and taught at our Family Open Day, where he talked with our visitors, told stories and demonstrated his work. “Saturday Oct. 19, 2019 – fun fun fun greeting people from all over the world at the Scott Polar Research Institute”.

Speaking to visitors at our Arctic Family Day

Willy went to high school in Oregon, where he met (now Professor) Larry Rockhill, who went on to become an Emeritus Associate with SPRI. Larry’s own academic interests also lie somewhere between Alaska and Russia, and so it is little wonder that he and Willy kept in contact for so many years. It was this deep friendship which meant that Larry put Willy forward as a possible candidate to visit the museum here in Cambridge, and we’re very pleased that he did.
For a more detailed account of Willy’s time spent in the UK, please read our next post. This trip diary, outlines the busy days he spent with us here in the Institute and in other museums across Cambridge and London. It was an absolute pleasure to have Willy to stay and share his history, cultural heritage and traditions with us. To leave you with Willy’s words, “I can’t thank you more than enough for a dream visit to the United Kingdom.”

iDiscover in the library

Tuesday, October 8th, 2019

Researchers across the world are now able to access the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) library’s collection through the University of Cambridge’s online catalogue iDiscover. Nearly 170,000 individual catalogue records were transferred into the iDiscover database at the end of September. These records describe each and every book, article, pamphlet or disc in our extensive collection, and among them over 110,000 journal articles. Anyone interested in polar research can find these resources simply by clicking on iDiscover in the SPRI or University Library websites – anywhere where there’s an Internet connection.


Polar research is more important than ever before. Understanding our changing climate relies on understanding changes in the polar regions – and the impact they are having on the rest of the world. The peoples and cultures of the northern polar regions offer a unique perspective on the ways humans can interrelate with their environment. The iDiscover catalogue is a major resource for facilitating conversations with northern populations, and climate-change research more generally.


The SPRI library staff are delighted to be opening the collection up through iDiscover. A new user found a book in SPRI the very day the data was transferred. She had been looking for the book all summer, and suddenly it had popped up in iDiscover. She hadn’t ever heard of the SPRI library before.


The SPRI library boasts a unique collection of work on the polar regions, spanning history, biography, poetry, fiction, social anthropology and the hard sciences. Its special collection contains volumes of key importance to the history of our understanding of the world – such as a seventeenth-century description of the seas under the earth, the Mundus Subterraneus by the German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher. Readers can pursue their interests in subjects as diverse as reindeer husbandry, Arctic politics, sea ice and the meditations of Mrs. Chippy, the cat who accompanied Shackleton’s polar expedition from 1914 – 1915.


The library also houses one of the world’s key collections of Russian literature on the polar regions, dating from the early explorations of Siberia until the present day. Russian research has always formed a crucial contribution to the world’s knowledge of both the north and south poles, and the people who live there. The Russian collection contains rare and valuable work on the languages and histories of Russia’s indigenous communities. The iDiscover catalogue makes the Russian collection available to scholars across the world – including scholars from the world’s indigenous northern communities. We hope the iDiscover catalogue will help indigenous communities remain in contact with each other, and with the scientific community in the world more generally. Try it for yourself here

A Viennese Whirl: The Madness of Conferences

Thursday, January 11th, 2018

We’re All Going on A Summer Not-Holiday: Part 3

Thursday, December 14th, 2017

This should be the last part of my mini-series on what’s involved in glaciological fieldwork. Here, I’ll talk a bit more generally about the overall experience of actually being out in the field.

So, what does fieldwork mainly involve? There are two principal components: heavy lifting and waiting. To get all your equipment into the field means loading and unloading it from sundry vehicles and containers, and then dragging it to wherever it’s actually going to be deployed. For drones, for instance, this isn’t so much an issue – the boxes are a bit bulky, but they weigh under 10 kg. For GPS stations powered by about three car batteries, weighing 100 kg+ in total, this is more of a problem. In many ways, the ideal field team would be composed of contestants from the World’s Strongest Man. This is also the reason many more field-based researchers end up with all sorts of musculo-skeletal issues by the time they reach 40…. Safe lifting practices aren’t always practical when you’re trying to get a car battery up a cliff to a time-lapse camera site…. It’s fair to say that glaciological fieldwork is pretty physically demanding!

The waiting comes in throughout the whole trip. There’s obviously all the waiting around at various airports as you fly out and back. In the field, when you’ve got a helicopter scheduled, there’s a lot of waiting for that too. You’ve got an approximate arrival time, but you want to be ready well before that, as it could easily arrive half an hour or more either side of that time. And, just generally, once the instruments are all set up, your main task becomes waiting around until something breaks or it’s time for some sort of scheduled maintenance check.

In other words, fieldwork can be very neatly summed up as a process of ‘hurry up and wait’. You run around like a madman, carrying things, in the set-up phase, but, otherwise, you’re largely sitting around, either in transit or keeping an eye on your experiments. And, then, with Greenland, you have a couple of further issues. Firstly, mosquitoes. Everywhere, at the field site near the terminus. You will get bites, no matter how much repellent you slather on. Going to the toilet is particularly hazardous. You won’t catch anything, but it’s pretty unpleasant. And then there’s the fact that it’s permanently light that far north in summer. At first, this is quite fun, but what it means is you never really sleep properly for the whole time and just get more and more tired….

It might sound as if fieldwork is rather unpleasant. Sometimes, it is. On the other hand, it does have its advantages. My view on waking up every day was like this:

Store Glacier calving front at the end of the field trip.

It was pretty spectacular. You also get to watch a lot of very impressive calving events (when bits of ice fall off the front of the glacier), creating icebergs. Seeing the thing you’re researching in the flesh, as such, is also very valuable. As a modeller, I mainly think in data points and triangular mesh elements. Being able to see what those actually corresponded to in reality was a very useful experience, to say the least. There’s a further important element of team bonding – you really get to know your fellow researchers when you’re stuck with just them for a month – which means we work better together back in the office. And, finally, if no one went into the field, we’d have no data, or, at least, no way of verifying that satellite data were actually accurate. It’s therefore quite exciting to be involved in such a scientifically-valuable enterprise and know that you’re really helping move things forward.

So, overall, whilst some of the trip wasn’t very fun whilst it was happening, it does give you an awful lot of anecdotes to trot out on your return, and it definitely has its upsides, as well as being very important scientifically! A worthwhile experience, in other words.

 

We’re All Going on A Summer Not-Holiday: Part 2

Thursday, November 16th, 2017

I promised a follow-up post on what we actually did on fieldwork upon our return, so, here goes. In this post I’ll focus on the science; in a subsequent one, I’ll talk a bit more generally about the wider fieldwork experience.

First thing I will say is that from a scientific point of view, the fieldwork was a roaring success. We achieved all our objectives, despite arriving four days late (more on that in the next post). We set up and used several different instruments, which I’ll explain a bit more about below.

The first instrument, and the one I ended up being responsible for was the radar interferometer, which we set up to observe the calving front. To explain what a radar interferometer is: the first part, radar, is fairly straightforward. We all know what a radar is. It’s that thing with the glowing green screen that goes ‘beep’ and shows a dot as the enemy aircraft/tank/monster/etc. is detected by it in every action movie ever. Obviously, however, a dot showing there’s a calving front there isn’t terribly useful for us. This is where the second part comes in, the interferometer. Interferometry is the use of multiple discontinuous small receivers to crate a virtual massive receiver, which gives you much better resolution, and, critically, the ability to get a 2D picture of the target. It’s used a lot in astronomy – rather than building one very large telescope, you build several smaller telescopes and space them out a bit, giving you the same result (with the application of a bit of maths and computing power) for much less effort. Our interferometer had a baseline (the distance between the receiving antennae) of only about 15 cm, but it was enough for it to produce very detailed 2D scans of the entire calving front every three minutes, for three weeks. Continuously. That’s a lot of data, which we can use to study the processes behind calving, as well as the behaviour of the ice mélange immediately in front of the glacier, once it’s all been processed.

The radar interferometer, overlooking Store Glacier. The top antenna (the horizontal bars) transmitted; the two lower ones received.

Our second big instrument, as such, was the drones. Six of these were brought along, and, after a few initial technical issues, they worked almost flawlessly, making several successful flights at the calving front and at the site on the ice, 30 km inland. Despite every landing being essentially a tenuously-controlled crash. The drones were fitted with a digital camera, and took hundreds of overlapping photos of their target areas. We hope this will allow us to track very small changes in the ice surface between flights, but we’ll need to process more of the data to see how successful that is.

Tinkering with a drone at the calving front.

The third major group of instruments we set up was the time-lapse cameras. These are, again, fairly standard digital cameras, this time set up on tripods overlooking the calving front. We set up ten of these; four on the south side of the glacier terminus; six on the north side. These, ideally, will each take a photo of the calving front every five minutes for the next five years. Hopefully, they won’t break too badly in the meantime. Again, the array of overlapping photos should allow us to track terminus changes and calving processes over the longer term, which will prove useful in detecting trends and seeing how representative the data gathered this summer are.

And tinkering with a time-lapse camera….

The final set of instruments we used were the GPS stations. Four of these were set up at the inland site to allow us to track ice velocity (speed and direction) for the next few years (until they eventually break!), which will be useful in complementing the other datasets, as well as providing long-term information on the health of the glacier.

A very low-tech GPS station at the calving front. The inland ones were a bit more sophisticated.

We now have several terabytes of data (1 TB = 1000 GB = 1,000,000 MB) to process. That’s our work all sorted for the next few months….

And, to finish with, here’s a couple of videos of science in action: launching and landing a drone. Ignore what appears to be the giant space laser in the launching video – it’s just the Sun.

DSCF3524

DSCF3526

We’re All Going on A Summer Not-Holiday: Part 1

Saturday, May 27th, 2017

This blog post is written by PhD student Samuel Cook

Five of us from the Scott Polar Research Institute – me, Tom, TJ (all PhD students), Antonio (a postdoctoral researcher) and Poul (our supervisor) – are going to be spending the entirety of July doing fieldwork in Greenland. Specifically, at Store Glacier, about halfway up the west coast of Greenland. We’ll be joined by researchers from other institutions and will be conducting a variety of scientific work – such as setting up time-lapse cameras at the calving front (i.e. the end of the glacier where ice falls off into the fjord), using drones to gather improved data on the glacier’s surface elevation and velocity, and radar measurements of ice thickness and basal properties – at several different locations on the glacier, up to 60 km into the interior of the ice sheet.

The location of Store Glacier (inset). The big green thing is the domain I use in my modelling work.

The location of Store Glacier (inset). The big green thing is the domain I use in my modelling work.

This presents several challenges. To start with, a logistical one: getting that many people and all the things they need to survive and use (food, tents, scientific equipment, clothes, etc….) to somewhere that could charitably be described as the middle of nowhere isn’t simple. We have to drive van loads of the bulkier stuff over to Aalborg in Denmark so that that can be shipped to Greenland, but this has to be done a few weeks in advance of our departure (June 27th) to make sure it arrives before we do. To get to Greenland ourselves, we have to fly via Copenhagen (Greenland being Danish, flying from Denmark is the easiest route), then on to Greenland. We then have to take a couple of internal flights within Greenland and a couple of helicopter journeys to get to the vicinity of Store. All this has to be done with us carrying all our personal kit. Such fun. And there’s all the paperwork to fill in to satisfy EU, British and Greenlandic customs regulations. It just gets better.

We also have to buy and test all the equipment, as well as buying all our own personal gear. This is a) expensive, b) complicated and c) tiring. It turns out two days of putting up and taking down a succession of tents to check for tears is hard work. On the plus side, they all seem to be intact. Unlike my fingers. I’ve also spent a gratuitously-large amount of money on buying all sorts of outdoorsy equipment to ensure I have enough clothing for a month. And so I don’t die of exposure. Or mosquitoes. There are going to be a lot of mosquitoes. You can’t catch anything from them, but the bites are unpleasant enough anyway.

Antonio, TJ, Tom and I setting up the biggest of the tents.

(Left to right) Antonio, TJ, Tom and I setting up the biggest of the tents.

Finally, there’s also a huge amount of university admin to wade through, funding to be applied for and so on. All of which also has to be done well in advance, and not forgetting the need to actually plan what we’re doing once we’re in the field, to make sure we don’t leave anything vital behind. The group has a lot of spreadsheets on the go, to put it mildly.

So, in terms of all the necessary preparatory work, it’s pretty safe to say that glaciological fieldwork is a long way from being a straightforward experience. Once we’re back at the end of July, I’ll write another post about the actual fieldwork. Watch this space…