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Wilfred Theakstone


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Wilfred Theakstone

As an undergraduate at Cambridge University, I participated in a glacier research programme at Austerdalsbreen, Norway, in 1956 and then visited the Svartisen area, close to the Arctic Circle, in order to explore and survey Larshullet, at that time the deepest known cave in northern Europe. I returned to Svartisen in 1957 in order to continue both cave and glacier studies.

Having graduated with a First Class Honours degree in Geography from Cambridge University in 1958, I spent two years at the University of Oslo, where I carried out research under the supervision of Olav Liestøl of the Norwegian Polar Institute. He encouraged my interest in glaciers and glacier-dammed lakes and helped me establish the Svartisen Research Project. Between 1960 and 1962, I was a postgraduate student at Cambridge University; I was awarded an 1963.

I was appointed a Junior Research Fellow at the University of Sheffield in 1962 and an Assistant Lecturer in Geography at the University of Manchester in 1963. In 1969, I took up a 2-year appointment at Aarhus University, Denmark, where I established a course in Glaciology which has continued since then. Whilst at Aarhus, I started the Okstindan Glacier Project in Norway. I returned to Manchester in 1971, was appointed Senior Lecturer at the Department of Geography in 1976 and Reader in 1990. Having retired in 1997, I was appointed Senior Research Fellow, and then, in 2008, Honorary Senior Fellow. My current appointment is as Honorary Fellow in the School of Environment and Development within the Faculty of Humanities for a fixed term period from 1 February 2017 until 31 January 2020.

Other research

Research programmes

The Svartisen Research Project is concerned primarily with the areas glaciers. Initially, studies were concentrated on the largest glacier, Austerdalsisen: investigations beneath the glacier and at its upper surface were carried out through a period of several years. Twentieth-century changes of Austerdalsisen have been dominated by calving into marginal lakes. From 1957, annual studies provided a record of the changes, which culminated in the break-up of the glacier tongue in 1987. In the 1960s, I established photographic stations in front of many of the Svartisen glaciers and I have monitored their subsequent variations. These since the late 19th century. Together with colleagues from Aarhus University, I carried out terrestrial photogrammetric surveys of the largest outlet glaciers of the East Svartisen ice cap in the 1970s and 1980s. I produced a 3-volume Svartisin Glacier Atlas (text, maps, photographs) in 1988.  Variations of the area's glaciers since the late 19th century have been influenced by climatic changes.

A flood relief tunnel completed in 1959 ended a series of annual outbursts of the lake dammed at the western margin of Austerdalsisen.  The permanent lowering the lake surface level resulted in the exposure of lacustrine sediments, which subsequently were eroded and reworked by terrestrial and fluvial processes. To the north of the East Svartisen ice cap, older glacial sediments contain calcareous concretions.

The programme of the Okstindan Glacier Project, undertaken jointly with personnel from Aarhus University, has included observations of the areas two easternmost glaciers, but the principal focus has been the largest glacier, Austre Okstindbreen. Mass balance studies between 1985 and 1995, observations of surface flow and strain and mapping using Global Positioning System surveys were undertaken alongside oxygen isotope analyses of the snow which accumulated on the glacier in winter and of the river water issuing from the glacier in summer. Oxygen isotope analysis of daily precipitation at Tustervatn, 25 km south-west of Austre Okstindbreen, through a 7-year period, 1997-2004, revealed a strong seasonal pattern that reflected the influence of regional temperatures, air mass trajectories and the North Atlantic Oscillation.

Since 2000, I have taken part in a programme of glaciological studies in south-west China with Dr He Yuanqing and his colleagues at the Cold and Arid Regions Environmental and Engineering Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Sciences at Lanzhou. Changes of the monsoonal temperate glaciers during recent decades have been influenced by rising temperatures. Most of the annual precipitation in the Mount Yulong area, Yunnan Province, falls during the summer monsoon. The chemistry of winter precipitation differs from that of the summer, as dust is brought to the glacier from continental areas.

Expertise related to UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This person’s work contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-being
  • SDG 7 - Affordable and Clean Energy
  • SDG 13 - Climate Action
  • SDG 14 - Life Below Water


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