Obituary: William Stanley “Stan” Bryce Paterson, glaciologist

Stan Paterson: Scientist's love for climbing led to him becoming a distinguished glaciologist

Stan Paterson: Scientist's love for climbing led to him becoming a distinguished glaciologist

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Born: 1924, in Edinburgh. Died: 8 October, 2013, in Campbell River, Vancouver Island, Canada, aged 89

Stan Paterson was born in 1924 in Edinburgh, where he studied maths and physics at university and joined the student mountaineering club. There he acquired lifelong friends and a passion for climbing, which led to an invitation to join the British North Greenland Expedition in 1953-54 as a surveyor, part of a team traversing and measuring the thickness of the Greenland Ice Cap. His meticulous observations and the accuracy of his data helped establish a baseline for later ice loss. It also earned him an invitation to join another expedition in 1956, this time to South Georgia in the south Atlantic, of Shackleton fame.

There the party of eight spent six months making the first island-wide surveys of the major mountain ranges and incidentally witnessed the final days of whaling.

Stan emigrated to Canada in 1957 for a job involving radar in Montreal, but he took time off the following summer for the Scottish East Greenland Expedition, basically a ski and climbing trip with friends with a bit of science included.

The main project was to measure the rate of flow of one of Greenland’s coastal glaciers, which turned out to be faster than expected and was, in hindsight, a probable portent of global warming.

By chance he also encountered an American polar scientist who told him about a glaciology program at the University of British Columbia, where Stan enrolled for a PhD the following year. His field work was on the Athabasca Glacier and he fitted in as much climbing as possible before he left, degree in hand, for a job in Ottawa.

In 1958, the Canadian government, aware of its lack of knowledge of its Arctic regions, had initiated the Polar Continental Shelf Project, a scientific and logistical organisation intended to combine basic surveying with polar research.

Stan joined it as its glaciologist. In the following years he built up a group of scientists and technicians who spent many summers on the ice caps of the Canadian Arctic, drilling up ice cores that were analysed for structure, chemistry and oxygen isotopes.

They yielded an unassailable record of past climates that has been used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The group’s pioneering research produced one of the earliest surface-to-bedrock ice cores.

While working for Polar Shelf he also wrote one of the foundation textbooks of glaciology, widely used and now in its fourth edition – The Physics of Glaciers. Stan left Polar Shelf in 1980, partly because of irritation with growing bureaucracy, and moved to Quadra Island in British Columbia. There he continued to work, updating new editions of The Physics of Glaciers, and taking sabbaticals to work and teach with colleagues in Copenhagen, Seattle, Melbourne and China. Latterly he wrote his autobiography.

Stan loved the west coast of Canada and its mountains, but his first love was always Scotland, where he returned yearly to hill walk, ski and visit old friends. With them he returned again to Greenland, but he never made it back to South Georgia, although he kept in tough with all his old mates.

The last two of his companions on that expedition died a few months ago so Stan’s death seems to mark the end of some kind of happy age of scientific exploration.

He was awarded the Richardson Medal for Outstanding Services to Glaciology in 2012. Also that year Stan set up a scholarship in glaciology and the first recipient was chosen this spring.

Stan died peacefully in Campbell River on Vancouver Island on 8 October, aged 89. He leaves his wife Lyn and his sister Betty.

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