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Sounding out the Antarctic

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2016

This blog post was written by Grace Atkinson, a local student who came to see us in the Museum and asked if there was anything she could do. We gave her a research project, and this blog post is the outcome.

As an International Baccalaureate student with a keen interest in both geography and the Antarctic I decided to contact the Polar Museum to see if there was a project I could do outside of my studies to enhance my geographical knowledge as I am planning to study Geography at University. After looking at the exhibits I thought a blog post about radio-echo sounding in the Antarctic would be an engaging topic to research.

My aim is to increase people’s awareness of the different techniques used by scientists in the Antarctic to collect data from the ice sheets as the study of ice is becoming increasingly important; its thickness is useful in determining the impacts of climate change. Radio-echo sounding is a geophysical technique which investigates the thickness of glaciers and ice sheets, this becoming crucial within the study of glaciology. Before radio echo sounding was invented by the Scott Polar Research Institute in the 1960s, scientists such as Amory Waite, used radio to measure ice thickness however this method wasn’t widely known. Radar became more popular after an incident involving a WW11 Allied aircraft which when flying across Greenland crashed into the ice due to miscalculations with their radar altimeters. The accident caused increased interest in using the radar for experiments that measure ice sheet thickness in the Arctic.

Oliver Shepard stands on snow holding ice core drill during the Transglobe Expedition 1979-82.

There are lots of ways to study ice. In this picture Oliver Shepard stands on snow holding ice core drill during the Transglobe Expedition 1979-82.

The technique of radio-echo sounding since being developed in the 1960s is now used by a variety of institutes such as the US National Science Foundation to investigate and map the ice covered terrain in the Antarctic. As water and ice are transparent, low frequency electro magnetic waves can be used in the Antarctic to obtain the information and this method is accurate which is why it is used in other scientific investigations, for example marine acoustic sounding. There are echo pulses which penetrate the ice sheets enabling scientists to receive and analyse the data. These pulses are particularly useful for researchers studying the dynamics of ice sheets and their internal ice structure in sub-glacial regions. The radio echo sounding machine has two crucial components, these being the transmitter which sends out the echo pulses, and the receiver which records the strength of waves and the time it takes for waves to bounce back.

Traditional measurements of sea ice thickness are through drill holes which are effective at giving a good overview of ice thickness in extensive areas, however, the use of electromagnetism in radio echo sounding is much more accurate and reliable by comparison. In addition to this, one of the biggest advantages of radio echo sounding in the drilling of holes is its speed.

The invention of radio echo sounding has been influential and the gateway to the development of more recent methods of measuring sea ice thickness, for example the satellite altimetry which relies on the use of a radar pulse. However, there are limitations to the measurements as the laser only collects data in cloud-free conditions.

After researching the use of radio echo sounding in the Antarctic regions I believe it has proven to be the technology of major interest and importance due to its significance in scientific development such as the discovery of subglacial lakes in Antarctica.

Read about some of the work carried out by scientists at SPRI in recent years here.

Sewing Antarctica

Tuesday, August 11th, 2015

Sewing Antarctica2

Trying to communicate the sheer scale of the Antarctic and what the landscape actually looks like can be a tough job… The continent is more than fifty times the size of the UK and there are ice sheets, mountain ranges, crevasses, active volcanoes and lakes – lava lakes, meltwater lakes and huge lakes under the ice. We frequently use paper maps in our education and outreach sessions, but have been wanting to get our hands on something far more exciting and interactive. For some time, we’ve been wanting a tactile map which could be used as a multi-sensory resource for a range of people, and we’ve finally been able to commission local artist Jenny Langley to make us a textile map!

Keen to be as accurate as possible, we roped in a host of friendly academics from SPRI and beyond to advise. Dr Gareth Rees provided us with scale maps (winter and summer), and worked with us to look at lichen, the structure of ice and the colour of penguin guano (poo). Professor Julian Dowdeswell shared his knowledge about the Transantarctic Mountains, ice shelves and crevasses. Professor Clive Oppenheimer talked us through photos of strange lava tunnels, rock formations and vivid mineral colourings of Mount Erebus. It’s illegal to buy rocks and fossils from the Antarctic continent so Dr Peter Clarkson helped us source some plausibly Antarctic specimens. And we spent a lovely day at the British Antarctic Survey talking to Dr Katrin Linse and Dr Huw Griffiths about some of their exciting deep sea finds. All of this information will be added to the map.

Word spread and soon a number of interested people were asking about progress and sharing ideas, which led to a fun Friday evening with Jenny and a group of staff and volunteers. Fuelled by a glass or two of wine, we stitched krill, starfish, rocks, ice, lichen, penguin guano and sea – all of which will be added to the mat.

The map will be delivered at the end of August. We know there’ll be three-dimensional mountains; we know there’ll be pockets in which to hide treasures such as rocks and fossils; we know there’ll be flaps which will lift up to reveal deep sea creatures and hidden parts of the continent; and we know there’ll be a secret lake. But what we don’t know is just what the final result will be – and we can’t to see it! We do know that it will be extremely beautiful and we will definitely be sharing the finished map so that everyone can begin to marvel at the sheer size and incredible geography of the Antarctic!

Naomi C.

Rocks rock for the Antarctic Cataloguing Project

Monday, July 6th, 2015


Work is continuing apace on the Antarctic Cataloguing Project, with over 600 objects examined, described and condition assessed. Working by object type (which makes life much easier in terms of accessing the objects in the store, and facilitates description and condition assessment as you know what to look out for), Sophie, Christina and I have now worked our way through all of the goggles, medals, boots, clothing, snowshoes, crampons and skis housed in our main store (this excludes those items in the auxiliary store and in the gallery, which we will deal with at a later date).

Having spent two-three months working on the clothing, which included socks and slippers, mittens and gloves, hats and scarves, trousers, jumpers and endless numbers of anoraks, it made a very pleasant change this week to whizz through the entire collection of geological specimens in a single day. Not being a geologist, there’s very little I can say about a rock, so describing them was really rather easy and all I had to do was take a few measurements! Thankfully, many of the geological specimens had already been identified and this was recorded in the catalogue, but there were still quite a few with the really helpful description of ‘rock’ – although occasionally there was a bit more detail, like ‘small rock’.

The great thing about SPRI is that you are surrounded by people who know about polar things, so there’s usually someone in the building with the required knowledge. So we turned to SPRI’s resident geologist, Dr Peter Clarkson, who spent 22 years working as a geologist with the British Antarctic Survey, to help us out. Unfortunately, with such small samples and so little contextual information for the rocks identified as needing the ‘PCT’ (Peter Clarkson Treatment), we weren’t able to get an identification for everything. However, Peter was extremely helpful and filled in a lot of gaps, even if it did mean pointing out that some of the samples were of very doubtful Antarctic provenance and that others were really nothing special and it wasn’t quite clear why they were even in the collection! And, having run everything by a geologist, we’re almost certain that we’ve got identifications for all the things that we’re ever likely to be able to identify.


We then moved onto to natural history specimens, which largely consists of eggs (also pleasingly quick to examine). But it’s not just penguin eggs! I always forget that, for the purposes of the Antarctic Cataloguing Project, ‘the Antarctic’ doesn’t just refer to the continent of Antarctica, but also includes Antarctic and sub-Antarctic islands, where wildlife is more diverse. However, I think that many of these eggs may also be of doubtful Antarctic provenance (for example, a group thirteen eggs collected by Edward Adrian Wilson, doctor and artist on Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition 1910-13 which may well have been collected in the UK), but unfortunately we don’t currently have a resident ornithological expert – so if anyone’s good at identifying birds’ eggs, we’ve got a good selection!

sperm whale ear drum

And I really shouldn’t forget to mention that we have a bone from a sperm whale’s ear – just because.


Record reformatting is happening

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

The final structure of our template record (field headings only).

It’s been a long time coming but we have finally (or very nearly almost) finalised our standardised record template which will work for all of the objects in the museum’s collections – be they Arctic, Antarctic, polar general or art works. This has been an enormous part of the Antarctic Cataloguing Project so far – and perhaps a much bigger and more-time consuming task than I’d first expected – but I’m absolutely certain that it’s been worthwhile. To accompany the template we’ve also produced some really detailed guidelines on what information should be recorded where and in what format, how and when to repeat individual fields or groups of fields, and when to use termlists.

As well as setting up termlists for all the fields where we want to use controlled terminology, we’ve made huge advances in our use of the functionality of Modes (our collections management database) in order to set up termlists which hyperlink to biographical records for people, organisations and expeditions. These records still need populating – an ongoing task that we’ll be working on for quite a while – but everything is now in place. The great thing is that these are resources that can be shared by the museum, archive and picture library catalogues, and we won’t need to repeat biographical information in individual object/archive/photographic records. And ultimately, if all goes according to plan, this biographical information will become available as part of the Antarctic online catalogue, whereby clicking on the name of person or expedition will take you to a page about them.

After a wave of terror (what if it all goes wrong?) and a very deep breath, I’ve now started reformatting the Antarctic records to match the new template. Unfortunately, because of the inconsistencies in the structure of the existing records, it isn’t possible to map records from the old format to the new so it has to be done by hand. However, I don’t mind doing it. In fact, reformatting records makes me very very happy! And it gives me a chance to familiarise myself with the information in the records and to tidy up some of the data where necessary. The plan is that whenever I add a new physical description to an Antarctic object record following the object study/condition assessment, I’ll reformat the record – so this will obviously be an ongoing process throughout the two years of the project. And I really hope that somehow we’ll find a way to reformat all of the other records in the database that are outside the scope of the project (i.e. everything that isn’t Antarctic).

Although it’s going to be a slow process, the benefits will be enormous. A standard record format will make it much easier to search our collections and will help us manage information about the objects and things that happen to them, such as keeping track of research visits, conditions checks, exhibitions and loans. It will also help with the creation of the online catalogue – the current differing structures of records makes writing the code for the web catalogue a challenge. And, although perhaps not so important in the grand scheme of things but nevertheless very important to me, the records will all look the same and will be a thing of beauty! I can’t wait!

Getting to know the Antarctic

Tuesday, December 16th, 2014

Health warning: this post contains detailed information about cataloguing and classifying and is not for the faint-hearted!

I’m six weeks into my job on the Antarctic Cataloguing Project at The Polar Museum and am finally starting to feel that I’m getting to grips with the project and all its different elements. I’ve been doing quite a bit of behind-the-scenes work and trialling of this and that – including devising a standard template for biographical records for people, organisations and expeditions so that this information doesn’t get repeated in individual object records; creating a term list for Arctic and Antarctic expedition names so that they always appear in the same format; and measuring and describing some of the 27 objects in the collection from the British Antarctic Expedition 1907–09 (Nimrod) and cross-referencing them with photographs from the expedition. I’ve concluded that a two-pronged approach to the project is probably the way forward – one driven by the objects and the other by the expeditions – and I hope the two will come together at some point! And I’m really hoping that, come the new year, I’ll be ready to get properly stuck in.

I’m also working on a standard template for object records, and am currently thinking about keywords – what sort of keywords have been used in the past, what keywords will be useful to us (internally), what keywords will be useful to the public (externally), and what’s the point of these keywords anyway? I’m struggling with the answers to the first three, but I think the reason we want to use keywords is that they provide quick and easy means of searching the collections and of grouping the objects together (whether it’s by expedition, place, object type, or a more nebulous type of theme etc.)

I’ve decided to focus in geographic keywords first, so I’ve been taking the time to get to know the Antarctic. I’ve been interested in the Antarctic for quite a few years but, to be honest, my geographic knowledge of the continent has never stretched much further than being able to point roughly in the direction of the South Pole and knowing where the Antarctic Peninsula is! So Step One was to get myself a map… much better!

wall map

My wall map.

Step Two was to try to understand how places in the Antarctic work – not only where they are, but how they are grouped together, and what the broader divisions/areas are, as well as the specific places. In short, is there some sort of hierarchy to Antarctic places – a polar equivalent of village, county, country? And I’ve discovered that the answer depends on the resources you use.

I’m a bit of a place-hierarchy obsessive, having spent the first year of my museum career on a cataloguing project which focussed on recording information about where objects were made, used and collected. Let’s imagine we have an object that was used here at The Polar Museum: we might know that it was used here, or we might know that it was used on Lensfield Road, or in Cambridge, or in Cambridgeshire, or in East Anglia or in England etc. This is why I love hierarchies – it’s great to be specific when you can, but in most cases you just don’t have enough information and need to be more generic. Another reason for favouring the generic is if an object has been used in several places in broadly the same area.

So I’ve been casting about to see whether there are any existing hierarchies of Antarctic place names and trying to understand how they work. While an existing hierarchy might not suit our needs exactly, it does mean that somebody has done the really hard part – structuring a hierarchy. In the past I’ve used the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Place Names and while (to my surprise) it does list quite a lot of Antarctic places, most places are only linked to Antarctica rather than to any hierarchy…

And then I discovered the ‘Universal Decimal Classification for use in Polar Libraries’! Exciting stuff! (Well, it is to those of us who love classifying things). It’s has been in use at the Scott Polar Research Institute since 1945 (with updates over the years) and is also used by other polar libraries, and seems to be perfect for what we want. It’s already used by the SPRI Library, is being rolled out in the Archives, and has been used in some Museum’s Arctic object records, so it makes sense to use it for the Antarctic object records too, as it provides a way to tie the Institute’s collections together and enable searching across the collections. It has taken me a little while to figure out how it works though (hence all the scribbling).

My UDC annotated map

My UDC annotated map

Unfortunately Step Three (the tricky one) is still to come – to work out how to put this information into the object records. A numerical code or a numerical code and text version? Should it show just the narrowest level in the hierarchy to be used for that record, or should it show all the levels, or a set number of levels? And this thinking about how to represent hierarchies in the object records doesn’t just apply to geographic keywords – they’re also issues I’m going to have think about when recording materials more subject-based keywords.


PS I promise not all of my posts will be about cataloguing and classifying!


A new project at The Polar Museum

Wednesday, November 26th, 2014


Hello! My name’s Greta. I joined The Polar Museum at the start of November as Antarctic Project Cataloguer, having spent the past three years working at the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) at the University of Reading, where I worked on a range of cataloguing and research projects – especially in relation to the traditional craft collections. I volunteered at The Polar Museum for a few weeks several years ago, so it’s really good to be back.

The Polar Museum has received £99,386 from the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund for the Antarctic Cataloguing Project – a two year project to create a fully-researched online catalogue of the Polar Museum’s collection of material (approximately 3000 objects) relating to the science and exploration of Antarctica. I’ll be using photographic, archival and library material held by SPRI to contextualise the objects, and will also be cross-referencing the collections at the Polar Museum with comparable objects in national and international collections. Objects will be added to the online catalogue throughout the duration of the project, which is planned to coincide with the centenary of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition in 2017.

It’s still very early on in the project, and I’m still trying to get to grips with what it is I’m actually going to be doing over the next two years and how I’m going to go about doing it. I’ve been spending my first few weeks getting to know the Institute and its collections and, most importantly for my work, understanding the object database (MODES), how it works and what we can do with it. There’s certainly a lot to be done in the project – describing, measuring, photographing and condition-checking the objects; carrying out research in the Archives and Picture Library to find out more about the objects, the people who used them and the expeditions they were used on; and bringing all of this together in the database in a coherent way!

I’m hoping to blog regularly about the Antarctic Cataloguing Project, so please keep an eye on the blog to see how it’s all progressing.