Tag Archives: William Speirs Bruce


2 Jan

Happy New Year!!

This January, Professor Julian Dowdeswell of the Scott Polar Research Institute will lead an international research team in the long planned expedition to the Weddell Sea. This expedition aims to investigate ice shelves around the Weddell Sea, particularly the Larsen C Ice Shelf. It also hopes to locate the wreck of Shackleton’s ship Endurance, which sank in the area in 1915.

The expedition’s progress and achievements will be followed internationally – in addition the Royal Geographical Society has created an educational programme aimed at engaging the interest of children from primary level upwards.

The Weddell Sea was discovered in 1823 by James Weddell, the British sea captain/ sealer, who sailed as far south as 74°15´S. It is a vitally important ecosystem – penguins, seals, whales, krill, corals and sponges thrive there. It is shaped as a huge bay; Coats Land (discovered by William Speirs Bruce in 1904) is at one extremity, the Antarctic Peninsula is on the other. It has been described as ‘the most treacherous and dismal region on earth’.[i]

An important aim will be to investigate the shapes of the ice shelf bases. Ice shelves stop ice from flowing outwards from the continent. Thinning of the ice shelves results in increased flow from the interior, which, in turn, causes a rising global sea level. The sea floor will be examined to assess the stability of the ice shelf.

Although the general circulation of oceans is determined by wind driven currents, the Weddell is one of few locations where deep and bottom water masses contribute to global thermohaline circulation. Bottom water is the lowest water mass with distinct characteristics in terms of physics, chemistry, and ecology and a temperature of -0.7 °C or colder. The thermohaline circulation is the motor of deep ocean currents and is driven by density gradients influenced by surface heat and freshwater fluxes. The description relates to thermo- temperature-and –haline, salt content.

The Larsen Ice Shelf, in the northwest part of the Weddell Sea, is named after Captain Carl Anton Larsen, master of a Norwegian whaling vessel who sailed along the ice front as far as 68°10′ S. in 1893. From north to south segments of the shelf are called Larsen A, B, and C (the largest), and Larsen D, E, F and G.

The 2019 expedition is focused on the Larsen C ice shelf from which a giant ice berg calved off in July 2017 (twice the area of Luxembourg), reducing the size of the iceshelf by approximately12%.




Dowdeswell and Shears[ii] explain in the ‘Geographical’ that measurements will be taken of salinity and temperature of the sea adjacent to the shelves, samples of marine life will be obtained and the sea ice thickness will be measured by aerial drones. Autonomous Underwater Vehicles will make echo soundings of the underwater shape of the ice shelf base, the roughness of which is a vital parameter in numerical modelling of future ice shelf stability. Ernest Shackleton’s Ship will be searched for.

Whether the team will be able to achieve these aims is uncertain — the conditions are so unpredictable that attempts to navigate south could be unsuccessful, but this expedition is of pivotal importance in attempting to obtain long-term prognostic information relating to global warming. I hope this important analysis of the Weddell Sea will be successfully accomplished.

[i] Henry, T.R.,1950,The White Continent

[ii] Dowdeswell, J. Shears, J. 2019, Geographical, p.10







21 Jul

It is interesting that the frozen Arctic, long considered to be of no commercial or strategic importance, is now increasingly significant in world geopolitics. It was a prescient move when Russia claimed Franz Joseph Land in 1919. The potential benefits of the region seem to multiply. Currently an Eastern Arctic oil strike has boosted Russia’s aim to turn the region into an important source of energy.
Oil has been found in a field below the LAPTEV Sea. This sea lies on the northern coast of Siberia. To the west is the Taymyr Peninsula which is topped by Severnaya Zemlya and to the east are the New Siberian Islands, an archipelago in the extreme north of Russia on the North of the East Siberian coast
To say the least, this is a challenging area for oil extraction. The climate is one of the most severe of the Arctic seas. The air temperature is below 0 °С for 11 months a year on the north, and 9 months on the south. The average temperature in January, the coldest month, varies across the sea between −31 °C (−24 °F) and −34 °C (−29 °F) with a minimum of −50 °C (−58 °F). In July, the temperature rises to 0 °С (maximum 4 °С) in the north and to 5 °С (maximum 10 °С) in the south. Strong winds, plus blizzards and snowstorms are common and snow can fall in the summer The sea is characterized by a temperatures, which ranges from −1.8 °C (28.8 °F) in the north to −0.8 °C (30.6 °F) in the south-eastern parts). The distance to Moscow is over 4.000 km.

But the point is that successful extraction will reduce Russian dependence on her current oil sources such as the oil fields in Siberia, and reduce the effect of Western sanctions after the Ukraine crisis – apparently cooperation with America fell through, secondarily to sanctions after the military intervention in the Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

To facilitate transport, a nuclear- powered icebreaker is being built in St Petersburg. This will be the biggest and most powerful of its kind in the world.

There are airfields and bases on the offshore Arctic areas and President Putin is quoted as saying that the Arctic is an extremely important region that will ensure the future of his country. Russian capabilities will increase as she develops the Arctic Region

William Speirs Bruce campaigned energetically for the annexation of Spitsbergen. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, would have no part in this, writing in 1917 that there was no sound reason to consider annexation – this would require an armed force to safeguard the claim, a claim that, by itself would not prevent the island being used by enemies of Britain. In fact in 1918, in the post W.W.1 Versailles Treaty, the dawning international consensus was that Denmark would ’get’ Schleswig (southern Jutland), Sweden, the Baltic Islands, and Spitsbergen would become part of the Kingdom of Norway, i.e. given away without any consideration of its mineral wealth or strategic value. In world politics British interests were focused on the East, in Mesopotamia and elsewhere.
How times change!

Norman Einstein-ownwork


25 Mar

I have spent a considerable amount of time in the past few years researching the life of William Speirs Bruce Polar, the naturalist and explorer of the late 1800s and early1900s. There is an immense (overwhelming), amount of information about him stored in various museums and libraries: The Royal Scottish Geographic Society, The National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh University Library, Glasgow Museum, The Scott Polar Research Institute, The Royal Geographic Society and more, yet hardly anyone has heard of Bruce, – even in Scotland where he lived and worked for thirty years.

In the late 1800s it was uncertain whether Antarctica actually existed – were the sightings that had been made of land in the region simply islands or part of the mythical continent? Bruce’s scientific findings on his original visit (as a junior naturalist and doctor in 1892) did much to stimulate ongoing interest in an area. His own expedition, the Scotia expedition really opened up the region for the first time. On Scotia he organised hundreds of ‘stations’ where, sometimes with great difficulty, scientists collected a vast amount of data about the ocean. For each station the ship was halted and sea depth, sea characteristics, trawl findings, drag net findings and comprehensive meteorological data was collected over a distance of hundreds and hundreds of miles. In addition the scientists studied the animals; fishes seals whales birds – and the expedition discovered land (Coats Land), which changed what was understood about the geography of the Weddell Sea. It was on this expedition that a meteorological station and magnetic observatory were set up in the South Orkneys. These stations continue today.

In addition he added much to knowledge about Spitsbergen and surrounding islands in the Arctic

So why is he so little remembered? He knew the answer himself. His expeditions were scientific, no deaths no dramas, no financial support from big, publicity blazing newspapers. He wrote that the public wanted ‘narratives bristling with hairbreadth escapes, and thrilling adventures’. On one occasion, when he was invited to address a SCIRNTIFIC society, the secretary wrote to give his opinion that possibly one the hardest athletic feats to be achieved, was to get to the North or South Pole. He (the secretary) added that ‘it would be quite suitable if one of our university athletic clubs would take up this piece of work. No greater fame could accrue to such a club than to record that they were the winners of the Polar Blue Ribbon. I should quite well like to see the athletic club of one of our universities in Scotland victorious in this regard’

If the Secretary of a scientific society could write this =what hope with the general public?

Was he an Antarctic Hero? A hero is defined as a person admired for their courage,
outstanding achievements or noble qualities, I don’t think he was noble, he did what he was driven to do, nothing could, or would stop him, but in terms of outstanding achievements, and his grit, courage, doggedness to keep going in spite of all set backs, I think he qualifies..

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.


26 Jan

Penguins were of great interest to the early Antarctic explorers, but where does the word come from?
Alastair Ross,a medical student, went with William Speirs Bruce on the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition as taxidermist. He made notes and a comprehensive log book on the birds they saw, particularly penguins. (W.S.Bruce.National Museum of Scotland, Box 5, File 53)
He too was interested in the derivation of ‘penguin’ and made quotes from “A Dictionary of Birds” by Alfred Newton (as cited by Hans Gadout in 1894).
There are 3 suggestions;
a) The word comes from the Welsh pengwyn “white head”. This is questioned—penguins don’t have white heads, there is no evidence of a Welsh discovery of the birds and anyway, it is thought unlikely that even if the Welsh did discover penguins, they would have persuaded English sailers to use the term.
b)”Penguin” derives from the Latin pinguis (fat). This is thought unlikely.
c) Apparently the word was first applied the the Great Auk of North America and a plausible theory is that the name is a corruption of “pin-wing” meaning that the bird had been pinioned (immobilised) and referring to its rudimentary wings. The Auk was seen in the 1500s and the name “pin-wing” was given to the birds in North and South America and, after this to the Southern penguins.
This seems a reasonable suggestion and as modern dictionaries throw no further light on the mystery, I am sticking to it.

The British Antarctic Survey

2 Nov

I did not know, before reading the obituary of Richard Laws that The British Antarctic Survey (of which Laws was Director in the 1970s and 80s), that the successful continuation of this hugely renowned scientific base was indirectly due to the Falklands War.
The Survey was pioneered by Sir Vivian Fuchs who gained government support for the present headquarters in Cambridge as well as research stations based on the Antarctic Peninsula. Fuchs’ work was continued by Laws who consolidated the BAS’s reputation as a multidisciplinary research institute, but had to battle against severe funding cuts by the BAS’s funding body, the National Environmental Research Council.
A new facility at King Edward Point (which had been threatened with closure) had only just been occupied when the Argentines arrived at the Point. The team were interned for a short time.
When South Georgia and the Falklands were recovered, Margaret Thatcher concluded that it was in the British interest to have a continued presence in the South Atlantic and Antarctica and that scientific work there should be supported. Increased funding followed and BAS scientists are amongst the world leaders in Antarctic science. In Halley, they were the first to discover the depletion of the ozone layer over the South Pole, a discovery that informed the world of the potential damage that man could inflict on our world. The peninsula bases and the BAS headquarters in Cambridge continue their international contribution.
The importance of the peninsula had been recognised in W.W.11. Operation ‘Tabarin’ was undertaken by the Admiralty and the Colonial Office in 1943.Its aim,to establish a permanent presence in the Antarctic in response to possible territorial claims by, amongst other countries,Germany and Argentina (the latter country already staffing a base in the South Orkney Islands which was started by the Scottish explorer William Speirs Bruce of the ‘Scotia’ expedition).
The area still remains a source of disagreement between Britain and Argentina


14 Oct

I have now started work on Bruce who led the ‘Scotia’ expedition (1902-04), a scientific expedition in the South Orkneys and the Weddell Sea. I would welcome any input.
Bruce seems to have had two outstanding enthusiasms; Firstly, natural sciences (he gave up the medical studies that he seems to have pursued in a desultory fashion for some years, to embrace the financial uncertainties of a scientific future) and secondly, a passionate Scottish Nationalism.
There are no obvious indicators for these passions;although Bruce’s father Samuel was born in Edinburgh, he grew up in London. Bruce himself was English born and educated. His overwhelming interest in natural science and Scotland seems to have started when he attended summer courses in biology in Edinburgh. These were organised by the inspirational Patrick Geddes. Geddes was an ecologist and promoted a holistic approach to the environment. In these courses Bruce met the foremost natural scientists of the day. His imagination and enthusiasm were caught. Aged 20, Scotland became his home and had his longterm loyalty.
Bitterness towards the South came later, no doubt fueled by Sir Clements Markham’s provocative reply to Bruce’s announcement, in 1901, that he planned a Scottish expedition to Antarctica to leave at roughly at the same time as Sir Clements’ baby. S.S ‘Discovery’
Sir Clements wrote…..’I do not understand why this mischievous rivalry should have been started and I trust you will not connect yourself with it…..’
Such comments inevitably stiffened the determination of the Scottish supporters of the scheme. ‘Scotia’ unusually, was fully financed by private, mostly Scottish backers.
The expedition was a success scientifically and a new land was discovered in the east of the Weddell Sea. He called this Coats Land after his principle backers.
Beyond Scottish borders Bruce is not as well known as other British explorers of the Heroic Era, although Professor David Munro mounted an important celebratory centenary exhibition.
Bruce deserves more recognition

SouthPole-sium v 2

19 Sep

Robert Stephenson who is the driving force of ‘The Antarctic Circle’ is co-ordinating a second SouthPole-sium. This event is to take place next May and is to be based in Argyll Scotland. Falcon Scott, Scott’s grandson, will be attending I believe.

The New Hampshire meeting (2012) was very good. Small (up to 100 enthusiasts), with the aim of sharing specialist knowledge and enthusiasms around the group.

If I have gathered sufficient information about William Speirs Bruce by May 2015, I will be able to make a short presentation.

Incidentally William was a Scottish Nationalist and proud to considered as such. He had started to study medicine but his passion for all matters polar took him to the Arctic many times, also to Antarctica as the leader of the ‘Scotia Expedition (1901-04)’ representing Scotland.

I expect that in the meeting in Argyll we will be looking forward to the pivotal developments in Antarctica. Some authors seem to feast on discovering and publishing failings of 100 years ago. I hope that in addition to reflecting on the achievements of the early explorers, we will learn more about the potential risks to a wild but peaceful Antarctica

As only 100 attendees can be tailored for I hope to produce a blog at the end of each day updating on interesting topics


William Speirs Bruce

9 Nov

I am thinking of writing a biography on Bruce, so any information or special anecdotes will be welcome.

Bruce’s  ambitions in relation to Antarctica came up against the formidable hostility of Sir Clements Markham, the geographer and explorer who was Secretary of The Royal Geographical Society in London for 5 years and its President for 12. When Bruce wrote to Sir Clements asking to join the National Antarctic Expedition, Sir Clements apparently did not reply, so Bruce organized the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition. This Sir Clements considered mischievous rivalry.

Due to Markham’s influence no Polar Medals were awarded to the Scottish expedition

Incidentally two attempts to have a Blue Plaque  on Markham’s London house, organized  by Robert Stevenson of the Antarctic Circle have been unsuccessful. Rob wanted to acknowledge  Sir Clement’s role in re-invigorating interest and enthusiasm for Antarctic exploration in the early 1900s and for his role in helping to eradicate malaria.  But both applications were turned down.