Obituary: Dr Chris Doake, Scottish glaciologist and Polar Medallist

Dr Christopher Samuel McClure Doake glaciologist and Polar Medallist. Born: 2 March 1944 in St Andrews, Fife. Died: 7 February 2021 in Coton, Cambridge, aged 76

Chris Doake in an ice cave

Dr Chris Doake was a gifted physicist who joined the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) in 1973, and was responsible for many of the glaciological programmes from the 1980s through to the 2000s.

His research in radio echo-sounding of ice and the interaction between climate and the dynamic behaviour of ice masses took him to both the Arctic and Antarctic. He mapped whole new areas of Antarctica with airborne radar, and he is the only person ever to have successfully predicted the disintegration of an ice shelf in Antarctica, Larsen B in 2002. He didn’t just say that it would happen, he predicted when, why and how it would occur. Over 20 years ago, Chris also warned BAS that the Halley Base on the Brunt Ice Shelf was at risk from the ice shelf breaking up, something that hadn’t previously occurred to anyone. BAS heeded his warning, leading to the development of the unique movable structure that was the subject of a BBC TV programme when it was moved 32km in 2016. As a former colleague said, it was a fitting tribute from Antarctica itself that the giant 1,275 km2 iceberg, A74, calved from the Brunt Ice Sheet on the day of Chris’ funeral.

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He was related to Sir Robert McClure of North-West Passage fame, perhaps accounting for his being drawn to the polar regions, but he was also a keen mountaineer, with a deep love of his native Scottish hills, to which he returned as often as possible.

Chris was born in St Andrews in 1944. His parents had married during the war, and his mother was living in NE Fife while his father was away during the war, as this was her home area – her uncle was Donald Mills, the Dundee architect who designed what is now the renowned Rufflets Hotel. After the war, jobs were scarce and the family moved to London, then north Kent.

Educated at Gravesend Grammar School, Chris chose to go to St Andrews University, and started a degree in geology and geophysics, but changed to pure physics and went on to obtain a 1st Class Honours degree and a PhD. Here he met his future wife, Jill, a fellow student.

He was a very good rugby player, and played for Kent County Schools rugby team. He took up climbing while still at school, and went on his first alpine sorties then. Mountaineering became one of his passions, and he became president of St Andrews University Mountaineering Club. A highlight was an expedition to Greenland, where members achieved 16 first ascents.

He was also among the group of Scottish mountaineers who formed the Corriemulzie Mountaineering Club in the 1960s. Chris was active with them during his time in Scotland, but when work and family took him down south, his mountaineering in Scotland became more opportunistic trips with friends and family. He instilled in his children a love of climbing and hill walking and they went on treks around the world because of the enthusiasm he nurtured.

In later life, he often went off to the hills of Scotland for days at a time, and for quite a few years to Crete as well. Chris’s hill walking love became curtailed in later years by a peripheral neuropathy that progressively affected his ability to walk.

In 1969, he had married Jill, but they moved south to London in 1970 for work. Chris’ love was still for the mountains and wild places, and geology/geophysics, so in 1973, when an opportunity came up with the British Antarctic Survey, based in Cambridge, they moved there. With BAS, he developed an outstanding career in glaciology, and remained there until his retirement in 2004.

Chris was responsible for many of the BAS glaciological programmes from the 1980s to the 2000s. His primary interest was in radio echo sounding to which he contributed skill, intellectual innovation and enthusiasm. He was also interested in the break-up mechanisms and critical effects of both atmospheric and ocean warming. Particular ice shelf features called Doake Ice Rumples are named in recognition of his work on the Ronne Ice Shelf. He also contributed to a seminal publication on Antarctic Science. Chris was awarded the Polar Medal in 1986 for his outstanding service to exploration and research.

On retiring, he spent his winters meticulously planning his climbing itinerary for the following year. Highlights were trips with his children to Scotland, Greece and France, including the GR20 trail. He enjoyed working with his hands and in earlier years built an extension to the family home and sitooterie in the garden, where he spent many sunny afternoons. Later, he developed an interest in wood carving, having started making wooden skidoos and other toys for his children and nieces in his spare time during long Antarctic summer expeditions. He was also something of a poet, poems have been found written in the backs of his Antarctic journals as well as very moving ones written in the last days before he died.

Chris’ thoughtfulness, patience and cheerfulness were appreciated by all who knew him. To his BAS colleagues, Chris was an exceptional glaciologist who seemed to have an inherent, natural understanding of ice. As friend and mentor, he taught many of them about ice and scientific writing, but also about the rigour, integrity and resilience required to be a genuinely good researcher.

Chris was diagnosed with indolent lymphoma, but this became aggressive about a year ago and he started treatment. He appeared to be making good progress but the lymphoma returned early this year and he deteriorated very rapidly. He died peacefully soon after.

Chris is survived by his wife Jill, three children and six grandchildren, and a younger brother.

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