Professor Julian Dowdeswell

51, is a glaciologist, director of the Scott Polar Research Institute and professor of physical geography at the University of Cambridge
He 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 Vatnajökull 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. I just loved it and have been back to the polar regions tens of times since – I’ve probably spent two and a half years of my life there in total.

I’ve spent a number of field seasons in the spring camped on the ice in the centre of large ice caps in Svalbard. That is very cold and the weather is awful. Spring is perhaps a slight misnomer – it’s essentially still the winter, but with the sun out. Temperatures can reach –40°C and blizzards can last for two or three days, forcing you to spend most of the time in the tents or digging out various pieces of equipment. That’s quite hard – it’s sort of science with survival.

There are surprises in science all the time – that’s one of the beauties of scientific research. If you had asked me ten years ago whether the Greenland ice sheet was a major contributor to global sea-level rise, I would probably have said it wasn’t. But since 2000, the Greenland ice sheet and the big outlet glaciers that drain it have responded quite dramatically to warming of the atmosphere and the ocean system. A lot more mass is now being lost than was the case even ten years ago. And that’s one of the reasons why our estimates for global sea-level rise are going up: we’ve found out much more about what’s going on in the Greenland ice sheet.

In most parts of the world, glaciers and ice sheets are thinning and retreating. There are one or two exceptions, but taking those to one side, whether it’s Greenland, the Eurasian Arctic archipelagoes or the Antarctic Peninsula, glaciers are retreating. The water that they have trapped in the past has been released back into the ocean, and that is one of the two major controls of global sea-level rise today (the other is the thermal expansion of the ocean).

By 2100, globally, sea levels are likely to rise by an absolute minimum of half a metre. That’s a very minimum estimate and I think it’s much more likely to be closer to one metre. 

Curriculum vitae
1957 Born in Farnham Common, Buckinghamshire
1980 Graduated with a BA in geography, University of Cambridge (UC)
1985 PhD from Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI)
1986–89 Physical geography lecturer, University of Wales, Aberystwyth (UWA)
1989–94 Senior assistant/assistant director in research, SPRI
1994 Awarded Polar Medal
1994–98 Professor of glaciology, UWA
1998–2001 Professor of physical geography and director of the Bristol Glaciology Centre, University of Bristol
2001–present Professor of physical geography, UC
2002–present Director, SPRI and Fellow of Jesus College, UC
2008 Awarded Royal Geographical Society’s Founder’s Medal

For more information, visit www.spri.cam.ac.uk

November 2009