Magazine article Geographical

I'm a Geographer

Magazine article Geographical

I'm a Geographer

Article excerpt

Professor Julian Dowdeswell, 51, glaciologist, director of the Scott Polar Research Institute and professor of physical geography at the University of Cambridge, has spent more than two and a half years working directly in the polar regions, generating a wealth of research that, in 1994, earned him the Polar Medal for "outstanding contributions to glacier geophysics'. He talks to Natalie Hoare about the world's ice masses and their response to climate change, and his experiences


The Scott Polar Research Institute was founded in 1920 by Frank Debenham, who became a professor of geography at Cambridge. He had been a geologist on Scott's last expedition and suggested that the residue of the Scott widows' and orphans' fund was used to found a centre for polar research, exploration and information.

It's concerned with all kinds of research into the region--not just scientific. Two of our staff, for example, are experts in polar social sciences and humanities. One is a leading expert on the reindeer-herding peoples of the Siberian north, and another focuses on the Inuit of the Canadian north, and also on the governance of these areas, which is obviously very topical just now.

I've been very lucky to work quite extensively in both the Arctic and Antarctic. I've actually just come back from a month offshore west of Greenland on the British research vessel James Clark Ross, looking at the marine geological and geophysical record in the fjords, the shelf and the continental slope, to try to understand past growth and decay of the Greenland ice sheet.

We took sediment cores - up to six metres long--from the ship and used two geophysical methods. First, we looked at the sub-bottom stratigraphy--the layer-cake structure of the sediments, using an acoustic source--and second, we looked in plan view at the shape of the sea floor using a multi-beam echo sounder, which produces a very nice digital elevation model in a swath several kilometres wide to either side of the ship. This enables us to describe the sea-floor morphology and effectively 'ground truth' the acoustic records with actual sediment cores.

My introduction to the polar regions was as an undergraduate at Cambridge. I wanted to do a physical geography dissertation so, together with a few friends, I organised an expedition to the west side of the Vatnajokull ice cap in Iceland. We had to raise the money to do this ourselves.

We caught a ferry with all our equipment crated up from the north of Scotland, travelling to Iceland via the Faroe Islands. Then somebody we had hired with a Land Rover and a trailer took us ten miles [16 kilometres] from the edge of the ice cap. From there, we had to backpack everything in. We camped there for about five weeks. …

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