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What can an expedition to Antarctica tell us about global warming?
Monday to Friday 5 - 9 May 2003 3.45-4.00pm

Writer and broadcaster Vanessa Collingridge reports from Antarctica on a scientific expedition whose contribution to the international debate on global warming will make a fitting tribute to the godfather of climate change science.

Vanessa Collingridge on South Georgia
Vanessa Collingridge on South Georgia

Slideshow See the slideshow of pictures from Antarctica >>>

100 years ago, the foundations of modern climate change studies were laid down by a Scottish geographer. William Speirs Bruce made scientific history when he led an expedition to Antarctica, and carried out experiments to show that this part of the globe was crucially important to the world climate. Yet his achievements are largely forgotten, apart from one famous black and white photo of a kilted bagpiper standing on the ice, serenading a bemused penguin.

Now, to celebrate the centenary of the Scotia expedition, a team of leading scientists have retraced the explorer’s footsteps - and taken a major stride towards understanding global warming. Team member Vanessa Collingridge kept an exclusive audio-diary for Radio 4. From abandoned whaling stations to lonely beaches, with a wildtrack of elephant seals and penguins, Vanessa reports on the scientific experiments which will show that Antarctic weather patterns are driving global warming.

The expedition of the 21st century used the information that Bruce collected along with the most sophisticated new techniques to examine how the climate of South Georgia has changed over 20,000 years. Initial results have shown dramatic conclusions and the team are confident that their research will change predictions for global warming. Their contribution to the international debate on climate change will be a fitting testament to Britain’s forgotten polar hero, William Speirs Bruce.

Programme 1 - The Scotia expedition team arrive at their base on South Georgia - the abandoned whaling station of Husviq. They brave the unwanted attention of elephant seals and Antarctic terns to begin their scientific detective work - mapping glaciers both past and present to see how they respond to changing climate.

Listen again  Listen again to Programme 1
Elephant seal
Elephant seal

Programme 2 - Vanessa finds herself at the wrong end of scientific glamour - paddling out onto a steaming lake on a home-made raft to help collect specimens of 20 thousand year old mud. But the application of cutting edge techniques - oxygen isotopic analysis and diatom research - will enable the scientists to use this mud to map South Georgia’s climate since the last Ice Age.

Listen again  Listen again to Programme 2
Chinstrap penguins
Chinstrap penguins

Programme 3 - How much can you learn from one solitary boulder? Well, if you choose the stone carefully, and apply the latest cosmogenic dating techniques, you’ll get the precise date of when a glacier carved its way through the landscape. As Vanessa discovers, the secret is all in a little ray of sunshine, whose cosmic radiation creates a unique signature on rock surfaces.

Listen again  Listen again to Programme 3
Dr Alun Hubbard
Glaciologist, Dr Alun Hubbard on the Nordenskjold glacier, taking soundings to show the base of the glacier.

Programme 4 - Wet feet and an aching back are the first conclusions from the expedition’s field work in the peat bogs of the Antarctic. But the scientists hope that the stripey cores they haul out of the bog will reveal the secret chemical fingerprints of individual volcanic eruptions. From these, the team can work out when the ice receded, and lakes were formed on South Georgia.

Listen again  Listen again to Programme 4
Glaciologists & Geomorphology team
Glaciologists & Geomorphology team

Programme 5 - Six weeks on, and the team are on the beach, ready to leave South Georgia. Although they’ve got a lot of lab work ahead of them, they’re confident that their fieldwork will make a significant contribution to the global debate on climate change - and that William Spiers Bruce (whose centenary voyage they are celebrating) would be proud of them.

Listen again  Listen again to Programme 5

Book: William Speirs Bruce, Polar Explorer and Scottish Nationalist, by Peter Speak (Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge) £9.99 published by National Museums of Scotland ISBN 1-901663-71-X
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