It is almost a hundred years after Scott died on his return from the South Pole, transporting his invaluable cargo of scientific specimens. The early expeditions drew global attention to the importance of Antarctica for science, and compelled generations of researchers to make discoveries that changed the way we view our planet. One of the most well-known of these is the discovery of the ozone hole in 1984 by British scientists.
Today the continent is a unique global laboratory for science and in particular the prediction of the global impacts of climate change, and I've just returned from a visit to the British Antarctic Survey's (BAS) Rothera research station.
BAS is supported by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) through the Government's science and research budget. It occupies two year-round and one summer only base in the British Antarctic Territory and delivers a world-class science programme. As Science Minister it was important for me to see first hand how the UK is contributing to the international effort to improve understanding of climate change, and what it takes to support research in one of the most inhospitable places on Earth.
I met scientists and support staff working both at Rothera and out in the field. I saw BAS's Bonner Laboratory, a state-of-the-art facility for terrestrial and marine biology. It houses an aquarium, library, microscope room and a Dive Facility, which keeps diving safely going throughout the year. You can see pictures of the base and the lab here.
Thanks to the weather I was able to go out on a boat and see where BAS divers collect marine animals for study in the Rothera aquarium - work that is vital for understanding how life will adapt to future environmental change. Their long-term monitoring programme includes also regular measurement of sea temperature, water chlorophyll contents, major nutrients and ice cover and thickness.
The UK also continues to explore the unknown, and I had the chance to learn more about some of the exciting, cutting-edge frontier science BAS and NERC are involved in. One of these is the exploration of Lake Ellsworth, an ancient lake - the size of Lake Windermere - hidden deep beneath Antarctica's ice sheet which could yield clues to life on Earth, climate change and future sea-level rise. This experiment brings together two of NERC's Centres of Excellence working in partnership with nine UK universities.
You can watch an animation of the experiment here.
Another important project underway is a multi-national science campaign involving seven countries, including the UK. They have pooled their scientific knowledge and operational expertise to investigate the origin of a 'ghost mountain range' that lies beneath the vast East Antarctic ice sheet. The results from this work give us new insight into the Earth's geological evolution as well as providing new clues about the birth of the ice sheet and its future stability.
The Antarctic Peninsula is one of the fastest warming, and therefore most rapidly changing places on the planet. There are serious challenges ahead, as the ice melts, accessibility increases and the climate becomes more welcoming to new species, carried there either by natural means or by humans. We are committed to honouring Scott's legacy and keeping the UK at the forefront of these challenges and polar science.
If you want to know more about Scott's expedition 100 years ago and how it paved the way for scientific excellence and the work of the British Antarctic Survey, I would encourage you to visit the 'With Scott to the Pole' exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society.