Double distinction for Leicester’s ‘Mr Antarctic Volcano’ in New Year Honours

An Antarctic-trekking academic at the University of Leicester has the rare distinction of receiving a New Year Honour for the second time.

Professor John Smellie has been awarded the Polar Medal by King Charles III, the second occasion he has received the accolade, and the second monarch to award it to him. Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II also awarded him a Polar Medal in 1986. 

He joins a small cadre of individuals to have received the medal twice. Professor Smellie is an Honorary Professor of Volcanology in the School of Geography, Geology & the Environment at the University of Leicester, which he joined in 2010 after spending most of his career working as Senior Volcanologist for the British Antarctic Survey. 

The Polar Medal is awarded ‘to individuals who have given outstanding achievement and service to the UK in the field of polar research, often over prolonged periods of time and in harsh conditions’. Originally called the Arctic Medal, it has existed for 150 years in which time there have been 1000 recipients. By contrast, less than two dozen individuals have had a Polar Medal conferred twice. 

Previous recipients of the Polar Medal include Sir Ernest Shackleton, Captain Robert Falcon Scott and Sir Ranulph Fiennes.

Professor Smellie has visited and worked on more volcanoes in Antarctica than any other person, living or dead. As a result, he has sometimes been nicknamed ‘Mr Antarctic Volcano’. 

A recent investigation included the two southernmost volcanoes in the world, situated just 300 km from South Pole. He had to wait almost 25 years until the conditions were in place to get him there. It was one of his coldest seasons in Antarctica, with temperatures typically minus 25°C. And as usual he was camping. 

Professor Smellie said: “I had wanted to work on those volcanoes ever since I heard about them in the late 1980’s. I already had experience working on the high polar plateau and its low temperatures. I knew that any exposed skin feels like it has razor blades being thrown at it. So it was often unpleasant even on the sunny days we had. And we never got the frost line lower than 30 cm from the floor of the tent, inside. But the scenery is brutally beautiful as well as extremely remote. Just two small exploring parties had ever been there, so it was a privilege for us to visit. Our results were also a big surprise so they excited us too.

“I was quite shocked when I heard the news and had to read it twice before it fully sank in. It was a wonderful way to end the year. My time in Antarctica in October and November (2022) had been quite challenging, with lower temperatures than anticipated, so the news made up for the difficult working conditions. But the award is not just about me. I have spent a long career away from home for months on end during most years, including very many Christmases and New Years. So it also reflects the wonderful support given to me by my wife and two daughters. A day at the Palace for them during the conferral is at least some small recompense.”

Professor Smellie first visited Antarctica as a 21 year-old immediately after graduating with his first degree at the University of Edinburgh and he has carried out 27 expeditions to Antarctica in total, most recently in late-2022. 

His specialty is interpreting the environmental history contained in Antarctica’s volcanic sequences, particularly critical parameters of the Antarctic Ice Sheet, for periods in the geologically recent past when Earth’s global temperatures were warmer than present. During those periods, the Antarctic Ice Sheet was climatically stressed. Documenting what happened will help us to understand it much better and how we might mitigate its impact on global sea levels under projected global warming trends.

Professor Stewart Fishwick, Head of the School of Geography, Geology and the Environment said: “It’s a fantastic honour for John to have received this recognition for a second occasion, and we really appreciate his contribution to the School through his research activities as an Honorary Professor.  More widely, it just shows how the breadth of geological study can be used to investigate fascinating regions of the Earth, whilst also contributing to better understanding around global challenges of the present.”