Bruce’s Achievements in Antarctica

3 Dec

As is well known it is difficult to get funding for scientific research that has no known tangible outcome. William Bruce was no exception to this when he started looking for funding for pure scientific research (rather that exciting feats of exploration), for his expedition to the Antarctic


Eventually he obtained funding; the greater part (about £30,000), came from the Coats family of Paisley), funding also came from Scottish Scientific Societies, from individuals and from ‘little orphans who had saved up their pennies to help the expedition’.[i]


Bruce’s original ambition for his ‘Scotia’ Expedition (1902-4), was to travel far south into the Weddell Sea and make a base on the mainland, but insufficient funds for the wintering station prevented this. The icy conditions Bruce encountered were such that he and his Captain, Thomas Robertson, decided to make their winter base on Laurie Island, a small island in the South Atlantic. Here he built his scientific laboratories and here, he and his team continued their careful scientific records (which had started immediately on Scotia’s voyage to the Antarctic) throughout the winter: The observations included meteorology, oceanography, magnetic observations, plus collection of flora and fauna.


All the Polar expeditions were very costly. Bruce’s privately funded expedition was planned for one year only. But during his winter on Laurie Island he became determined that his pivotal work should not stop when he returned to the UK – his dream was the development of a series of stations that covered the South Atlantic (as was to be achieved).


When he sailed to Buenos Aires, Argentina, for refuelling and re-provisioning, he approached the Argentine authorities to ask them to take over his observatories (he knew that the British authorities would not be interested in a small island in the South Atlantis of no commercial or strategic significance). The Argentinian authorities, responded with remarkable promptitude accepting Dr. Bruce’s offer within a few days and agreeing to Bruce’s suggestion that Argentinian scientists would man the stations with, originally, Bruce’s meteorologist, Robert Mossman, in charge. The Argentine authorities immediately understood the benefits of being in control of an island in the South Atlantic, whilst the British apparently had no such interest. One of the Argentine scientists was designated ‘Postmaster’ which was a statement of territorial intent. Stamps were issued that showed Laurie Island as a suburb of Buenos Aires.


The meteorological observations started by Bruce are an invaluable record. They have now been made continuously for 114 years (in 2018). This is the longest-running observatory in the entire Atlantic by well over forty years. Very important results have been achieved. Mossman’s observations resulted in the conclusion that conditions in one area – in this case the Weddell Sea, are coupled to far-off meteorological conditions, namely rainfall in South America. Mossman concluded that when there was a low pressure in the Weddell Sea and the South Orkneys, the winter rainfall over the lower part of Chile and the greater part of the Argentine Republic would be below average; whereas there was high pressure in the Weddell Sea and the South Orkneys, the rainfall in America would be above average. This was shown by the height of the River Parana in central South America, which rose and fell with the barometric pressure recorded in the South Orkneys in the previous months. This was the first time that prognostic information about weather conditions could be made.


Temperature records have been made continuously on Laurie Island throughout this period. The inexorable rise in temperature for over a century is charted. Records show a steady rise in temperature that has all too important consequences to-day. – both the North East and the North West Passages have been opened up to transport; sea level may rise by several meters over the next few centuries, affecting low-lying communities.


Bruce could not have anticipated these changes, but his determined insistence on collecting an unrivalled number of meteorological and oceanographic records, indeed recording all aspects of science for posterity and his success in this, makes his contributions equal or more important than any of his better-known contemporaries, Scott and Shackleton, of the early 1990s.


[1] Isobel P. Williams and John Dudeney; William Speirs Bruce Forgotten Polar Her, p 76


Paper on Sir Hubert von Herkomer R.A.

29 Nov

I have just submitted an article


Sir Hubert von Herkomer R.A. 1849-1914.

? Time to remember.

to The Journal of Visual Culture.

Herkomer had a fascinating, varied life–literally from rags to riches. He died in 1914 but had fallen from great popularity (probably akin to Watts) from just before WW1 and his star continued to descend thereafter. This was because of his German origins (which he celebrated), his overenthusiastic pleasure in his success, and the fact that his work was a reflection of a society that was destroyed by the war.

I hope the piece is accepted.


5 Oct

.I make regular presentations on Shackleton and the question of scurvy (or more particularly its absence) on the expeditions that he led to Antarctica comes up frequently.

Scurvy is a disease resulting from a lack of vitamin C (ascorbic acid), which is needed in humans to make the building blocks for collagen. A lack of vitamin C results in disease that develops in approximately three months. Early symptoms include weakness, tiredness and painful limbs. Without treatment the red blood cells decrease in number, gum disease and bleeding from the skin occurs and, as the condition progresses, there is poor wound healing. Personality changes may follow as may death due to infection or bleeding.

Scurvy was the dread disease of all long voyages. In the 18th century it killed more British sailors than enemy action – for example, in 1740 on his ‘mission to ‘Annoy and Distress’ the Spaniards, Admiral of the Fleet, George Anson, lost nearly two-thirds of his crew (1,300 out of 2,000) to scurvy, within the first 10 months of his voyage.

But in 1747, James Lind, a naval doctor, showed that supplementing the diet with citrus fruit could treat scurvy – this was one of the first controlled clinical trials reported in the history of medicine.

Lind treated sufferers with: cider, vitriolvinegarseawaterorangeslemons, and a mixture of balsam of Perugarlicmyrrhmustard seed and radish root). In his Treatise on the Scurvy (1753), he concluded ‘the results of all my experiments was, that oranges and lemons were the most effectual remedies for this distemper at sea’. However, Lind did not appreciate that scurvy was a deficiency disease. He thought it resulted from ill-digested/putrefying food.

Citrus fruit as a cure fell out of favour for several reasons. The navy began buying limejuice from the Caribbean (lass vitamin C) and transporting it in copper vats that probably destroyed its potency. As a result, men developed scurvy on expeditions during which ineffective citrus fruit had been given out. Eminent medical authorities disbelieved the ‘citrus fruit theory’ in the early 1900s.

By Shackleton’s first voyage on Discovery, poor hygiene, damp, food and numerous other theories were considered to be the cause of scurvy. He became painfully conscious of the problem when he suffered from the disease, along with Wilson and Scott, during their ‘Southern Journey’ on the 1901-1904 expedition led by Scott. On Wednesday 24th December 1902, Edward Wilson, the doctor of the expedition wrote (when the three were marching south on the Ice Barrier), ’As a result of today’s medical examination I told the Captain that both he and Shackleton had suspicious looking gums’. In January 1903, Wilson wrote, ‘there is no doubt that we all three have definite, though slight symptoms of scurvy’. The symptoms improved with an increased allowance of dried seal meal and no bacon (which Wilson believed was responsible for scurvy), but by the 14th January Shackleton wrote (later), that he had collapsed completely. Wilson wrote on the following day that Shackleton had had a very bad night and was very breathless (he thought Shackleton might die). On the 28th January Shackleton was breathless, restless, unable to move and, for the first time he seemed to lose his courage.

When the three returned to base, Scott sent Shackleton home on medical grounds. There is no doubt that Shackleton WAS suffering from scurvy though it is now thought likely that he had, in addition, an intermittent cardiac problem.


How did Shackleton avoid scurvy on his subsequent expeditions?

Before he set off on the Endurance expedition Shackleton wrote that, on his own Nimrod expedition of 1907-1909, there was not a single case of scurvy. He was convinced that as much fresh food as possible would be an answer to the problem. He took hermetically sealed tins of vegetables, compressed cubes of dried vegetables and as much fresh food as he could.

He explained his precautions in an article in the Daily Telegraph dated 7 July 1914. His aim was that the expedition diet should incorporate the latest scientific advances. He consulted Colonel Beveridge, Director of Hygiene at the Royal Army Medical College, for help in working out the best food supplies for the prevention of scurvy – he wrote that this was the first occasion that Polar Explorers would have the benefit of science as well as practical experience.

Important considerations were:

1) The food must be wholesome and uncontaminated. Only the most nutritious and (as far as possible), most varied food could keep the dreaded disease of scurvy at bay.

2) The food taken on sledging expedition should be as light as possible, but also be substantial, as ‘excessive concentration’ diminishes its nutritive value and renders it ‘less easy of assimilation’. Shackleton wrote that bulk was as essential as nutritive value.

3) Fatty and farinaceous foods in as liberal quantities as circumstances allowed should be included because in very low temperatures the heat of the body which, he stated, is the life of the body, could only be maintained with these nutrients.

4) Sledging food must not need much cooking, as the amount of fuel that could be carried was limited (and if it ran out, there was no means of replenishing it).

5) If no fuel was available the food should be of a character that could be eaten without cooking.

6) Shackleton also commented on the benefit of the greater variety of food in the winter quarters.

In 1912 Kazimierz Funk (1884 – 1967), a Polish biochemist had suggested the concept of vitamins (called “vital amines” or “vitamines”). He was consulted about the proposed sledging rations.

In the event, in his 1914-16 Endurance expedition Shackleton did not reach the Antarctic for his proposed stupendous sledging journey, but the rations suggested were an important guide, though presumably not used throughout the expedition. The diet emphasized the importance Shackleton had learnt to place on nutrition as one of the means of maintaining his men’s wellbeing and morale.

For sledging the diet provided 5,512 calories per day for each man – since a man’s usual daily diet was approximately 2,500 calories, in Polar conditions there would be a surplus 3,000 calories daily.

The ‘hooch” had a large fat and carbohydrate content, protein with meat fibre (provided by Bovril), vitamin C, and A, sugar and raisins. Advice was given to eat as much fresh meat as possible and to grow vegetables – mustard and cress for its vitamin C content. Penguin eggs were advised for a supply of vitamin B.

Colonel Beveridge’s rations

(Glidine is a vegetable protein. Trumilk had the advantage over ordinary dried milk in that has not been subjected to a heat that destroyed vitamins)






Wt. oz     Protein. g     Fat. g           Carb. g        Cals.

Bovril B ration

Oatmeal,                      2            12.94           5.34           33.02         236

Lard                             3½                0         99.23                   0         923

Sugar, 1oz                   ½                   0                0             14.17           58

Beef powder              1½            35.29           2.37                  0 .       166

Glidine,                         ½            11.78           0.14               0.82          53


Biscuits                       1                  9.21          0.85             14.45         105

Trumilk                        1                  6.70         8.00              11.68         150

Sugar lump,               1½                     0                  0          42.51        174

Total                           11 ½             75.92         115.93        126.55     1,805








Biscuits                          1             46.05            4.25             72.25       525

Nut-food +Trumilk      1+6           27.20           54.15             81.03       948

Trumilk                             ¼           1.74              1.99              2.90          35

Total                               11¼          75.09           60.38          156.18     1508




Bovril S ration

Oatmeal                             2            12.94           5.34             33.02        236

Lard                                   4½                0        127.57                     0      1187

Sugar                                   ½                0                0               14.17         58

Beef powder                      1½         35.29            2.37                    0        166

Glidine                                  ½         l1.78              0.l4               0.82          53

Biscuits                               1             9.21             0.85             10.85         105

Trumilk                                1            6.70             8.00             11.68          150

Sugar lump                          ½                0                 0              14.17           58

Total                                  11 ½          75.92          144.27            126.55     2139


Meat extract, ½ oz, at supper.

Tea, ½ oz. at lunch.

Concentrated Lime Juice, ½ oz.

Cerebos Salt ½ oz.

Virol (extract of meat)

Total Calories per day = 5,512.

Total Fat per day = 320.58 grams

Total Protein per day = 226.93 grams

Total Carbohydrates per day = 409.28 grams

The rations were packed in oblong boxes of Venesta wood (light and durable) weighing 60lb. each. They were refrigerated until arrival at the first destination. Lime juice was concentrated down at a temperature of not more than 93 degrees Fahrenheit, to preserve its anti-scorbutic properties.

No alcohol was taken save a small quantity of brandy for medicinal emergencies (given apparently, to combat frost bite or surgical procedures such as a tooth extraction), plus the occasional celebration.

Beveridge thought that the men would like the diet and be healthy on it. He was right. There was no apparent scurvy on Shackleton’s party as they drifted remorselessly around the Weddell Sea. The men on Shackleton’s Ross Sea party however seem not to have followed the scientific advice so conscientiously. Scurvy took its hold on the depot-laying mission to the Beardmore Glacier and the Reverend Spencer-Smith died.

Nowadays scurvy is prevented by a diet containing vitamin C (preferably in the food but sometimes as a supplement).90 mg is recommended for men.

An Admirer of Bruce

3 Sep

I often felt, that when I researched Bruce’s life, that his significant contributions had been completely forgotten. It was surprising to find, even in Edinburg,h how few people recognised his name.

This letter, recently sent on to me, is therefore. a happy surprise. Dr Smart was clearly a remarkable person and his appreciation of Bruce is greatly welcomed. Bruce battled for years with increasing frustration to obtain the Polar Medal for his crew. This was refused by the monarch (the reasons for this are carefully explained in the book). I am not surprised that holders of the Polar Medal, a really prestigious award, were not keen to give up their medals, but it was a generous, inspiring idea.

LETTER SENT TO AMBERLEY PUBLISHING: . I have permission to print it.

I recently read a review about your new book, ‘William Speirs Bruce, Forgotten Hero’ in one of the national newspapers and I thought I would get in touch to let you know that Bruce has not been entirely forgotten.

My father, Dr I. H. M. Smart, was a lifelong admirer of Bruce and always felt he had been badly treated by the Establishment and had not received the recognition that he deserved. My father was also an ardent Scottish Nationalist. who spent a large part of his life in climbing and scientific expeditions to North East Greenland. He was a founding member of the Scottish Arctic Club and a Past President of the Scottish Mountaineering Club. He was also a reluctant recipient of the Polar Medal as he felt his achievements were not of the same calibre of other recipients.

With this in mind he came up with an idea to finally give Bruce the honour he deserved. He planned to make a plaque to Bruce and the other members of the ‘Scotia’ and donate his medal to him and ask other medal holders to donate their medals to be put on the plaque too, I think up to the number of the crew. However, unsurprisingly I don’t think this idea went down well with other holders of the medal, though I think someone did donate one though I am not sure who.

Dad passed away at the end of 2016 so was unable to achieve his goal of recognition for Bruce, but his medal and the idea for the plaque is held at the offices of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in Perth.

I have to confess, that I know little of Bruce but I shall certainly get your book and look forward to finding out more about the man who inspired my father !


12 Aug

In the early 1900s Spitsbergen was still classified as ‘Terra Nullius’, a place where explorers from any country could claim land simply by positioning identification boards (indicating longitude &latitude), at the peripheries of the claimed areas and informing their governments of the details of the claim.

When William Speirs Bruce brought back coal of good commercial quality from Spitsbergen, he established the prospecting company the Scottish Spitsbergen Syndicate, in 1909. He had high hopes of a successful, marketable, profitable venture that would yield coal, oil and other minerals. The Syndicate made claims over vast stretches of Spitsbergen.

In the following years up to 1919 Bruce was increasingly concerned about his Syndicate’s claims. He feared that other countries, most particularly Norway and Russia, would take over ‘his’ British areas of Spitsbergen, or even lay claim to the entire archipelago – this would result in significant geopolitical, as well as commercial disadvantages to Britain.

He petitioned the British Government regularly for the annexation of Spitsbergen with a string of appeals: for example – if Norway were to get control, all Spitsbergen’s valuable resources would be lost; if Britain did not look out, Russia would grab the place and have an excellent supply of ‘Welsh’ coal. In 1912 he noted that Green Harbour (a port) had a suspiciously large telegraph station, well out of proportion to its needs –he was sure that the Norwegian Government would use the post office for a de facto administration of the Archipelago.

These appeals were doomed to failure. The authorities in Great Britain had ‘bigger fish to fry’ and considered this Archipelago of little commercial or strategic advantage.

An approach to Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, fell on deaf ears. Churchill wrote that there was no sound reason to annex Spitsbergen; writing that this action would require an armed force to safeguard the claim and that this in itself would not affect whatever possibilities existed of the island being used by enemies.

Bruce’s fears were confirmed at a meeting with an official from the Foreign Office, who in late 1918, informed him of the unwelcome dawning international consensus: Denmark would get Southern Jutland, Sweden would get the Baltic Islands and Spitsbergen would become part of Norway

Spitsbergen’s future was officially decided as an addendum to the Treaty of Versailles. The Spitsbergen Treaty was agreed in 9, February 1920. Spitsbergen became part of the Kingdom of Norway.

Bruce’s concerns about the future of Spitsbergen and its surrounds were prescient. Russia now has a significant presence in the region coupled with the will to tackle its severe conditions.

Large reserves of natural gas and oil have been discovered around Spitsbergen and elsewhere. The world’s attention is now focused on the potential gains of the area – the very gains that Bruce wanted to exploit. Exxon Mobile and Shell are applying for permission to begin exploratory drilling in the region.

Also global warming now allows much better access. Cargo ships can get through the North West Passage for several months in summer time. The North East route on the Siberian coast is open for a few months each year. Such easier transportation results in huge savings in transport time, money and greenhouse emissions.

Bruce made no money in the Arctic though he made geographic discoveries. But his instinct that the Arctic was geopolitically important as well as a source of huge potential wealth was all too correct. The world is now well aware of this.



27 Jun

Dr. Edward Wilson sent back penguins’ skins to England from Antarctica in the early 1900s. These skins were the controls when, in the 1960s, an investigation was undertaken on the presence of contaminants in Antarctica.

In 1964, Dichloro Diphenyl Trichloroethane (DDT), an insecticide very widely used at the time, was found in Adélie penguin skins. DDT gets into birds and larger animals via the krill that they ingest. DDT is known to persist in the environment and was banned: in America in the 1970s, in England in the 1980s and by the Stockholm convention, signed in 2001. Clearly it was hoped that levels of DDT in Antarctica would drop significantly over time, but disappointingly the compound was found in the sea around the Antarctic Peninsula 6 meters below the sea surface in 1975, and can be still found in penguin fat. A suggested explanation for this is that 1960s airborne particles became trapped in Antarctic glaciers and now as the ice sheets melt, the chemical is released back into the environment.

Now the same problem has been discovered with plastics and other chemicals.

In relation to plastics, researchers have found recently that water and snow collected in the Antarctic contain microplastics such as microfibers/ microbeads.

MICROFIBERS are finer than a human hair and are found, blended with synthetic or natural fibers, in clothes, knitwear and carpets. They get into the ocean through litter and are virtually indestructible. Some young fish have been found to prefer tiny particles of plastic to their natural food sources, effectively starving them before they can reproduce. MICROBEADS are tiny particles of hard plastics that are used in cosmetics, for instance as an abrasive in skin cleaners. These are flushed down the drain after use, instantly forgotten, but lasting for decades.

In relation to chemicals seven of nine snow samples contained concentrations of perfluorinated-alkylated substances (PFAS). These are stain, water and grease repellent chemicals that are found in a wide range of consumer products which have, apparently, been linked to problems in animal reproduction They reach the Antarctic in rain and snow (as did DDT).

Plastics and chemicals are now generally recognized as one of our biggest environmental threats. But in spite of well -publicized solutions adopted by many countries, it remains an enormous challenge.



An agreement was reached in 2016 by delegates from 24 countries and the

European Union, that the Ross Sea would become the world’s largest marine protected area (MPA). It is an area of 1.57m sq. km (600,000 sq. miles and will protect the area from commercial fishing for 35 years – of particular importance is the industrial-scale krill fishing which decimates the main food supply for many larger animals.

The Ross Sea, its shelf and slope are home to 38% of the world’s Adélie penguins, 30% of the world’s Antarctic Petrels and around 6% of the world’s population of Antarctic Minkie Whales. The fishing-free zone would protect these species and help mitigate the effects of climate change.

The Ross Sea marine protected area came into force on 11/12/2017.

Naval ships are monitoring the area.

This is a most important development for the future protection of the area. Edward Wilson and his colleagues would have approved.



Finding Shackleton’s Endurance

5 Jun



Recently a Victorian merchant vessel, the ‘West Ridge’, lost off the west coast of Australia over 100 years ago, was located during the search for the still tragically missing MH370, which disappeared whilst flying from Malaysia to China, in March 2014.

‘West Ridge’ ship wreck found 12000ft beneath Southern Indian Ocean December 2015

Area of Southern Indian Ocean where West Ridge, a barque lost in July 1883

credit:Australian Transport  Safety bureau /ATP/Getty



Now it is hoped that the final location of another lost ship, Shackleton’s Endurance, will be found on the seabed of the Weddell Sea as a part of an expedition that has, primarily, important scientific aims.

As is well known, Shackleton’s ship became trapped in the icy grip of the Weddell Sea in February I915. She drifted slowly and helplessly in a clockwise direction around the Weddell until October 1915, when the pressure of the sea ice started to crush the stern, and the sea finally poured in. The crew had to abandon ship to begin their precarious existence on ice flows.

Endurance sank on November 1915 – ‘She’s going boys’


October 1915 Endurance being crushed in the Weddel Sea – Sank in November 1915

credit : Frank Hurley

The proposed expedition aims to increase scientific information about the continent.

Glaciologists, geologists, geophysicists, marine biologists and oceanographers make up the team, which comes from, I understand, the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI), the Nekton Foundation, the University of Oxford, the University of Canterbury (New Zealand) and the University of Cape Town. The scientists will examine marine life in the Weddell Sea, and study the exposed cavities that lie beneath the Larsen C. ice shelf, one of the largest ice shelves in Antarctica, following the breakaway, in July 2017, of Iceberg A-68.

Professor Julian Dowdeswell, Director of SPRI, says that the study is relevant to all the ‘fringes’ of Antarctica and the ice shelves around it. Ice shelves are part of what secures the ice flow from the interior, if they break off, the interior ice flows faster. This is of general concern, because interior ice flows contribute to global sea level rise.

The Weddell Sea expedition will start in January 2019, (when sea ice is at its thinnest). Agulhas11 an icebreaking polar supply and research vessel will sail into the western part of the Weddell Sea, which has actually only been visited rarely since Endurance sank there in 1915.

The work will focus on the area in and around Iceberg A-68; the iceberg that broke off. It is massive, it has a surface area of 2,240 square miles (5,800 square kilometers), about four times the size of London!

Also cavities under the shelf of Larsen C itself will be explored, the seafloor mapped, and the overhanging ice canopy investigated. Samples of ice will be extracted from the shelf. These can be read (like tree rings) to see the ebb and flow of the ice over time. Because A-68 split off, there is concern as to whether Larsen C may be prone to collapse and the expedition aims to establish the past history of ice advance and retreat, to see if old grounding lines – the locations where Larsen’s feeding glaciers previously rested on the seafloor, have moved backwards and forwards on a fairly regular basis, or only retreated. In this way it is hoped to put the recent changes at the peninsula into longer-term context.

The Captain of Endurance, New Zealander Frank Worsley, was a navigator of enormous experience. He subsequently navigated the James Caird, a twenty-five foot boat, through the turbulent waves of Drake’s Passage and the South Atlantic, for 800 miles from Elephant Island to South Georgia. Only three sightings of the sun could be made on this sail. When Endurance sank in 1915, Worsley recorded her position as 68˚39′ 30.0″S. 52° 26′ 30.0″W, but locating the ship poses considerable challenges – she is 10,000 feet below the sea surface, the ice conditions on the surface can vary greatly from year to year, also the state of the ship will be poor, though it is thought that the hull will be reasonably intact.

If Endurance is found she will be surveyed, photographed and filmed. Undersea drones will document any marine life. The expedition obviously aims to record Endurance’s exact location, so the wreck can be listed as a historic monument under the Antarctic Treaty. Nothing will be removed from the site if the ship is found.

This is an important expedition with important implications. Finding Endurance would be a bonus, though it is interesting to consider whether Shackleton would have preferred to let her remain undisturbed.


Tags ‘West Ridge’, ‘Endurance’, Professor Julian Dowdeswell,  Frank Worsley, ‘James Caird’, Larsen C, Iceberg A-68, ‘Agulhas II’, South Georgia.








Comment on Amazon

13 May

I have just come across this ‘Comment’ on about ‘William Speirs Bruce, Forgotten Polar Hero’


‘The book provides a great insight into one of the lesser known characters of Arctic and Antarctic discovery and science. It is great to see a proud Scottish perspective running through the work. It is a very informative read which provides a wider perspective on polar science of the period. I would recommend the book to all’.


I am delighted with this comment as it reflects the careful analysis and conclusions re Bruce’s life that John Dudeney and I came to over a number of years.


25 Apr

News about pollution with plastic is everywhere. It has definitely hit public consciousness. Governments, businesses, and individuals are now conscious of the amount of unnecessary plastic waste thrown out daily and the damage this causes  (although I remain appalled at the number of plastic bottles that are still thrown from car windows onto my garden).

Plastic pollution means plastic products that are disposed of in a way that they cause damage to wildlife, wildlife habitat, or humans.

Plastics are categorized into micro-, meso-, or macro debris. Virtually everyone nowadays must be aware of macro debris; more than 8 million tons of plastics are dumped into the seas yearly resulting in animals being strangled by plastic loops, thousands of albatross chicks killed by the pieces of the plastic they mistake for food, the appalling aesthetics (and health hazards), of hitherto pristine beaches littered with plastic.

Microplastics are small plastic particles of less than 5 mm diameter. They are classified as primary; for example (from clothing and industry) and secondary, from the breakdown of larger macro plastic debris (for example debris at the bottom of the oceans). Microplastics are used, to a degree that I was unaware of, in the cosmetic industry: for example in exfoliates, soaps and other personal care products such as body scrubs and toothpaste. These plastics enter the sewage systems and, as they are too small to be completely retained by the preliminary treatment screens of wastewater plants, they leach into rivers and oceans. They do not degrade easily, persisting for years and so accumulating in the bodies and tissues of animals and plants and hence the food chain.

These microplastics are made of polyethylene, (a component of plastic), polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate, or nylon.

Plastics seem to be ubiquitous; items of clothing can contain polyester, nylon and acrylic synthetic fibers that shed and persist in the environment. It is a said that a load of laundry can contain more than 1,900 fibers of microplastics, (with fleeces releasing the highest percentage of fibers).

Spillage, coming from packing materials during transport and from processing plants are two other important sources of pollution, sometimes in the form of macroplastics, otherwise as secondary microplastics resulting from long-term degradation. A Swedish investigation, using an 80 µm mesh in Swedish waters, showed that the typical microplastic concentrations of 150–2,400 microplastics per m .   increased to 102,000 per m. in a harbor adjacent to a plastic production facility. A Californian study found that after a storm, the transport of plastics increased from 10 to 60 microplastics per m.

Recreational and commercial fishingmarine vessels, and marine industries are all sources of plastic that can directly pollute the sea. I was surprised that fishing equipment, such as lines and netting (which drift to variable depths in oceans) are a particular hazard. That awful beach debris comes either from people who just dump their debris, or from beaching of materials carried by ocean currents.

This is an urgent geopolitical problem which slowly and none too soon, is being faced up to:

A fascinating development has been the discovery of species of bacteria that uses polyethylene terephthalate (PET), one of the most common forms of plastic, as a food source. This is a huge find: PET takes 450 years to completely degrade in the environment. These bacteria, it is said, can digest it in weeks. But on what scale and how will these bacteria be contained? Will birds eat the bacteria?

Other solutions under consideration are:

a) In the UK a ban has been launched on microbeads. Other countries are introducing this ban.

b) Plastic-Free Aisles in Supermarkets, an Amsterdam store has a plastic free aisle containing more than 700 items. This cannot come soon enough. The amount of plastic packaging, of fruit/veg for example, in my local supermarket is ridiculous and dirtying your hands by handling potatoes, vegetables etc.(as some people object to), can help to build up natural immunity.

c) Banning Cotton buds and Plastic Straws
It is planned that this should be done within a year

d) Plastic Bottles

Have been described as ‘almost a flagship for the wider issues of marine plastic pollution’. 7.5 billion of much larger number of bottles end up in landfill in the UK, others get into the sea. In Britain there has been a 10% rise in plastic pollution on the beaches in the past year. There is now a huge campaign to reduce/stop the production of plastic bottles. Reusable containers are becoming popular. A 25p charge on disposable coffee cups is under consideration — this would greatly reduce the 5 billion cups dumped every year. Also discounts are being offered to consumers who bring their own reusable cups, for example Pret A Manger gives this discount. Since a 5p plastic bag tax was first introduced in the UK in October 2015, there has been a 90% fall in bag use — with 9 billion fewer bags being used across the country, according to figures released last July Tesco took the ban one step further, banning the 5p single-use carrier bags completely, in favour of a 10p bag for life. In his November budget, U.K Chancellor Philip Hammond announced plans for a tax increase on disposable plastic items, including takeaway boxes. These plans are being consulted on.

e) Water fountains. I like this idea. It takes us back decades! The suggestion is that if fresh water is available to the public, we will buy less bottled water.  Greater access to water fountains across the UK is being investigated

f) Recycled Plastics.

Currently, firms in the UK pay one of the lowest contributions to recycling their waste in the whole of Europe — with taxpayers instead paying 90% of the recycling costs.

The government could introduce incentives for industries designing packaging that is easier to recycle, and raise charges on packaging that is difficult to recycle, making packaging producers more responsible for the type of products they are putting on the market.

g) School education, even a half hour presentation, fitted into the crowded school curriculum, would make an impression

A summary of the UK’s approach was given by the Environment Secretary 1)Cut the total amount of plastic in circulation. 2) Reduce the number of different plastics in use, because that will help recycling firms. 3) Improve the rate of recycling, which has been slipping recently. 4) Make it easier for individuals to know what goes into the recycling bin and what goes into general rubbish.

To this, information could be added as to how our general rubbish is distributed (i.e. the % that is exported (untreated), the % the goes into landfill the % that is burnt.

This is a serious geopolitical problem; if these approaches are adopted widely the situation could be contained and gradually reduced.

Hubert von Herkomer and Vincent van Gogh

30 Mar

A final post about Herkomer, prompted by advanced publicity relating to the exhibition on van Gogh that is to be held in Tate Britain next year.

Herkomer’s ‘Social Realism’ pictures, reproduced in The Graphic, a magazine edited by William Luston Thomas, had a lasting influence on van Gogh who wrote to his brother Theo, that ‘the highest and noblest expressions of art were that of the English’. Van Gogh mentioned Herkomer in his letters to Theo regularly between 1881(when he was twenty-eight) and 1885.

I hoped that this influence would be mentioned in the Tate exhibition and was pleased to hear from the Curator of the van Gogh exhibition, Dr. Carol Jacobi, that she has a long-standing interest in Herkomer and that his importance to van Gogh will be a component of the show and the catalogue.

Herkomer, a few years older than van Gogh, was already an established artist at the time van Gogh wrote to Theo. The Last Muster (which received spontaneous applause when it was shown to the Hanging Committee of the Royal Academy), was internationally admired and had won the Medal of Honour in the Paris International Festival of 1878. Van Gogh also admired Herkomer’s painting of Bavarian peasant life (reproduced in L’Art which he would have seen) as well as paintings illustrating the deprivation and loneliness of old women in the workhouses of London.

Although van Gogh was in London for a few years in the 1870s he did not meet Herkomer, but he regularly went to look at new illustrations posted in the windows of the Graphic and Illustrated London News offices. Later (when in the Hague), he collected a complete series of twenty – one volumes of the Graphic running from 1870 to 1880.

He not only admired Herkomer’s work, which he considered showed both ‘soul’ and a sympathy for his fellow man, but he also admired the man himself . Herkomer’s accounts of the grinding poverty he and his parents endured when, in search of a better life, they emigrated from Germany to America and then to England, and his determination in overcoming these difficulties at the beginning of his career sounded a responsive cord in van Gogh, himself beset with so many career and personal frustrations.

Herkomer, in contrast to van Gogh, was to become a hugely wealthy man, mainly because of his portrait painting (which he defended as ‘Contemporary History’), but he remained a source of admiration to van Gogh, who as late as 1888 was still creating images that reflected the Graphic series – his admiration for the Herkomer’s expressionist ‘soul’ can be said to have remained with him throughout his life.

I am sure this Tate Britain exhibition will be a great success.