Tag Archives: Laurie Island


9 Mar

When William Speirs Bruce planned his 1902-1904 expedition to Antarctica his primary ambition was science, as opposed to exploration.

In 1903 he built two scientific observatories on Laurie Island on the northern edge of the Weddell Sea. This was the start of a collection of scientific records that was continued, when Bruce left the Weddell Sea, by the Argentine. Recordings have now been made for 116 years. They continue today providing unique information about meteorological, magnetic and oceanographic conditions in Antarctica.

In relation to meteorology, this graph running from 1903 to 2020 shows the trend and variance in the mean annual temperature on Laurie Island. It is by far the longest recording of temperature in the region (the second longest being from Argentine Islands off the Antarctic peninsula which runs from the early 1950s). As can be seen there is a trend in temperature from – 5°C to -3°C. The graph also illustrates clearly the variability in the annual records, but it is clear that the twenty-first century recordings approximate to the upper recordings in the early 1900s.

This graph would never be available save for William Speirs Bruce’s foresight in encouraging a network of weather stations to be run continuously in the South Atlantic.


World temperature is rising, controversy persists, though not amongst the scientists, as to how much man is contributing to the problem.

The reason there is life on our planet relates to infra-red active gases (carbon dioxide, methane, water vapour that are in the stratosphere). The lack of these gases would result in a significantly colder climate, a permanent ice age. Conversely, a rise in infra-red gases would result in a rise in temperature, though there is a complex, non linear relationship between small changes in carbon-dioxide, methane and other trace gases, and the consequent temperature rise. The global climate system is complex which makes it difficult to simply ascribe cause and effect.

But carbon dioxide levels do have a strong correlation to mean global temperatures. Fascinating ice core records were first recovered from the Russian station Vostok which provided records covering 450,000 years. More recently a record of 800,000 years has been recovered from “Dome C” in Antarctica (part of The European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica). This shows, very clearly, the link between temperature and carbon dioxide levels over cycles of glacial and interglacial periods of around 100,000 years. This is a natural process linked to long term small variations in the Earth’s orbit and axis of rotation. The level of CO2 in the stratosphere has varied naturally between around 180 ppm during glaciations to 280ppm in the warm interglacials, as shown in the records.

                        It has now passed 408 ppm.

Carbon is ubiquitous, in fossil fuels (oil, natural gas, coal), in organic matter in soil and in rock, in the sea. Carbon dioxide is emitted when we exhale, When fossil fuels, are burned carbon dioxide is produced. In 2019 the global emission was 33 gigatons (a gigaton is one billion ).

In the oceans it is estimated that there are billions of metric tons of carbon and further billions of metric tons in sediments on the sea bed. The latter comes from the shells of marine creatures that have absorbed carbon from the water, sunk to the ocean floor and later formed sedimentary rocks.

A raised carbon dioxide level relates to a rise atmospheric temperature which in turn is associated with a rise in ocean temperature, seawater expansion and a rise in water level. The increased water levels are also contributed to by melting land ice and erosion of ice shelf bases. Ice shelves hold ice from flowing outwards and thinning of these shelves increases the flow of ice seawards. An estimated ice loss across the entire Antarctic continent was 43 gigatons each year on average from 1992 to 2002. The loss has accelerated between 2012 to 2017.

Potential results of sea-level rise are coastal erosion and damage. Subsequently, inland areas would become affected and the soil contaminated. If the rise continues toward one metre, some of the world’s major cities will come under threat and even low-lying countries such as Bangladesh, will be threatened.

Ocean acidification, due to dissolved carbon dioxide, has serious consequences.

Acidification affects the southern Krill population. Krill, an essential primary food source, are small crustaceans that feed on zooplankton and convert this into a form suitable for larger animals such as whales, seals, penguins, squid, and fish to eat. All Antarctic wildlife ether depends on krill or depends on something that eats krill for survival. Without this stable base, the food chain linking upwards would deteriorate and eventually collapse. In addition, cold-water corals, which have calcium carbonate in their shells, become less able to build their shells and breeding grounds for both fishes and mammals would be lost.

But some do not subscribe to the concept of global warming, for example: Donald Trump cast doubt on a U.S government report warning of the devastating effects of climate change. When he was asked if unchecked global warming would wreak havoc on the US economy, he said: “I don’t believe it.” The administration has pursued a pro-fossil fuels agenda.

But if conclusions such as this from the U.S. President are wrong, the price to pay is huge. Given the persistence time of CO2 in the stratosphere of 100 years, even if the world were to stop all emission now there is still that legacy which is likely to take the planet past the 1.5 degrees C warming, which scientists say we should not pass. Currently carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning are steadily rising, rather than decreasing. Scientists warn that we are playing dice with the future of humanity.

A final point – global human population increase. This is approximately 83 million annually, or 1.1% per year. Population numbers have grown from a billion in 1800 to approximately 7.616 billion in 2018. Improved medical care and reduced child mortality would be a powerful incentive for families to have the confidence to limit the size of their families.

Policies now direct to keeping carbon emissions flat until 2050. But so far there is little sign of sufficient practical action on this. Scientists are now increasingly coming to the conclusion that we need to go “carbon negative”, which raises the possibility of large scale “geo-engineering”. – Geo-engineering is defined by as the large-scale manipulation of a specific process central to controlling earth’s climate, for the purpose of obtaining a specific benefit (Britannica .com).

Millions now do understand the dangers of global warming and the urgency to contain it. Humanity is at a crossroads, for the sake of our grand-children we need to make the right turn.


With grateful acknowledgement for the comments by John Dudeney O B E.-  my co-author of ‘William Speirs Bruce, Forgotten Polar Hero’



9 Dec

I read a piece recently about conditions on the top of Ben Nevis, horrible– deep snow, fog.

Just over 100 years ago there was a meteorological station on the summit of Ben Nevis. This was a wonderful, progressive concept. Meteorologists wanted to understand weather systems better in order to be able to improve forecasting. The observatory was opened in 1883, funded mostly by private donors (supposedly including Queen Victoria) and it worked in synchrony with a second station at Fort William which provided a continuous record for comparison with records taken from the summit. Temperature comparisons showed that the average fall in temperature between Fort William and the summit was 8.5°C and that the mean annual temperature was -0.3°C at the summit and 8.4°C at the low level observatory. The Fort William station was manned by the 25-year-old Robert Mossman, who was to be a long-term associate and friend of William Speirs Bruce

Before the summit building was constructed, a local man, Clement Wragge climbed the peak daily to make meteorological observations in the summer of 1881, getting up at 4.30 each morning to do so. His wife made the simultaneous observations at Fort William. Wragge was not appointed as Superintendent when the observatory opened which must have riled him considerably, the unanimous choice for Superintendent was Robert Traill Omond an expert meteorologist. Omond was succeeded by Angus Rankin who had been an assistant to Wragg. Both Omond and Rankin were to be long term associates of Bruce also.

Bruce started his apprenticeship for his ‘Scotia’ adventure when he joined the summit observatory as Rankin’s assistant in 1895. He had studied medicine in Edinburgh without much enthusiasm until he was offered a position as surgeon/ naturalist on a whaling expedition to the Antarctic. This experience convinced him of the benefits of a purely scientific expedition to Antarctica and on his return, he gave up medical studies to become a full-time naturalist. Ben Nevis gave him valuable training in meteorological work in all conditions – it could be dangerous to make observations when there was a southerly wind, the observatory was situated close to the cliffs on the north of Ben Nevis. In winter, snow tunnels had to be made to get to the instruments.

His association with Ben Nevis continued. When he led the ‘Scotia’ expedition to Antarctica he built a meteorology base and a base for magnetic observations on Laurie Island in the South Orkneys. He called the meteorological base Omond House after the first superintendent of Ben Nevis. His friend Robert Mossman (of Fort William) played an important part in both the ‘Scotia’ journey to the South Orkneys and the Laurie Island stations. Bruce was determined his scientific work should continue long term Neither the British Foreign Office not the Admiralty were interested in small South Atlantic islands of no strategic significance, so Bruce arranged (with the acquiescence of the British Authorities) for Argentina to take over the stations. Three Argentine scientists worked on the South Orkney base under the supervision of Robert Mossman (from Fort William). This was a decision that was to have long-term geopolitical consequences unforeseeable in 1904. One of the Argentine scientists acted as postmaster, a position that is reco0gnised internationally as a tool of effective administration. The claim of effective administration continues today.

Sadly the Ben Nevis station closed in 1919 due to lack of funds, but the men working there were to have a long lasting influence

More on William Speirs Bruce

29 Sep

William Speirs Bruce had two outstanding enthusiasms; he was a committed natural scientist and an internationalist – by which I mean he thought that there should be cooperation between all scientists with advances shared independent of nationality –
He demonstrated his philosiphy when he transferred control of Omond House the meteorology station on Laurie Island (South Orkneys), to Argentina in 1904. He made this decision because he was determined that the work that he had started on the island and neither the British Foreign Office or the British Admiralty showed interest in the project. Argentina made one of their lab workers a postal officer a decision that has repercussions today.
In the later part of Bruce’s life, he became obsessed with developing the mineral assets of Svalbard, the archipelago north of Norway.
He would have been pleased how his enthusiasms have dovetailed. In Svalbard there is a concrete seed vault that has been set up to protect the global agricultural heritage. The vault has been designed to be strong enough to resist nuclear explosions.
Now a full representative sample of syria”s agricultural heritage will be collected by scientists from the Middle East to be grown. Some of the crop will be returned to Svalbard for storage.
This is a truly inspired development run by the Global Crop Diversity Trust. It would have been beyond Bruce’s wildest imaginations but a development in which he would have rejoiced.