Professor David G Vaughan OBE
It is with deep sorrow we report the death of Emeritus Fellow, Professor David Vaughan. He was suffering from cancer and passed away peacefully at home on Thursday 9 February 2023.
David retired as BAS Director of Science in July 2021 but remained the UK lead for the International Thwaites Glacier Programme
**a memorial will be held at Churchill College in Cambridge on Thursday 20 April – to book your space, either online or in-person, please do so before 6 April at this Eventbrite page**
During his 35-year career at British Antarctic Survey David became recognised nationally and internationally as a leading expert on understanding the response of polar ice sheets to climate change and the implications for society. He served as co-ordinating lead author in two rounds of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment reports and was responsible for identifying the policy-relevant issues and negotiating the acceptance of key findings by high-level policymakers.
Director of BAS Professor Dame Jane Francis says:
‘David was a brilliant scientist, glaciologist and dear friend to many. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2020 after returning from a field season at Thwaites glacier, a project that he led with amazing energy and passion. Our thoughts are with his wife Jacqui and his family.’
Professor David G Vaughan OBE obituary
Glaciologist, former Director of Science at British Antarctic Survey and coordinating lead author for IPCC
Professor David Vaughan, who has died aged 60 from stomach cancer, was a world-leading expert on how polar ice sheets are responding to climate change. Former Director of Science at British Antarctic Survey (BAS), David was the UK lead for the International Thwaites Glacier Programme and served as co-ordinating lead author in two rounds of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment reports.
During his 36 years at BAS, David’s science and leadership advanced our knowledge of the impact of climate change on polar ice sheets, his 15 years of service to the IPCC helped ensure that science was available to policy makers worldwide, and his enthusiasm for science communication enabled wider publics to understand why the polar regions are crucial for planet Earth.
Early in his career at BAS, an interest and talent in drawing maps made David his group’s expert in analysing satellite imagery. This ensured the group was able to identify profound changes in the ice on the Antarctic Peninsula. In 1989, using a series of Landsat images, they showed that the Wordie Ice Shelf had halved in area in little over a decade.
The Wordie’s retreat was, their paper in Nature concluded, a rapid and dramatic response to recent climate warming recorded along the Antarctic Peninsula. It was the first major climate impact reported in continental Antarctica and one of the first examples of a large-scale physical system impacted by contemporary climate change.
In 1995, far more dramatic changes took place on the Antarctic Peninsula. David was in Cambridge when two ice shelves on the Peninsula’s northern tip collapsed in a matter of weeks. He asked a planned flight from Rothera to the Argentine station Marambio to take aerial photographs of the Larsen Ice Shelf, images that showed behaviour never previously recorded. A 1600-km2 section of the 200m-thick Larsen A had shattered like a car windscreen, its remains – an armada of icebergs as big as football pitches – drifting out to sea.
For the group, the changes provided certainty that these ice shelf changes were due to regional climate change. The pattern of retreating ice shelves fitted their theory that there was a ‘climatic limit-of-viability’ for ice shelves which had been driven south as climate warmed on the Antarctic Peninsula. Once again, the findings were reported in Nature and provided a graphic illustration of climate change in action.
Despite the dramatic changes on the Antarctic Peninsula, they were limited in importance – a symptom of climate change, rather than something that would have wide impact. By the end of the 1990s, David saw an opportunity to refresh glacier dynamics research at BAS by looking over the ridge towards the Amundsen Sea and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS).
Setting his sights on Pine Island Glacier (PIG) – remote from Rothera Research Station, heavily crevassed and beset by notoriously poor weather – his first foray to PIG came in 2004 with US colleagues. In following seasons several small parties led by BAS glaciologist Andy Smith undertook radar and seismic surveys there but struggled with challenging conditions.
Convinced that delivering data depended on scaling up operations, David and Andy lobbied to bring in tractor trains – a first for BAS – and a team of nine scientists joined the iSTAR traverse in late 2013. A second successful traverse followed in 2015/16, laying the foundations for the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration – one of the the largest field programmes ever undertaken in Antarctica – which will help glaciologists understand and predict the future of this epic glacier to global sea-level rise.
Born in Akrotiri, while his father was working for the Met Office in Tobruk, Libya, David grew up in Yately, Hampshire and Noss Mayo, Devon. At the local comprehensive schools he attended, he was good at maths, science and exams – something he approached as sport – and applied to read Natural Sciences at Churchill College, Cambridge.
Arriving by train for his interview, he recalled being awed by Cambridge and very nervous. Asked by Dr Brian Westwood to describe the mathematical proof that the square root of two is an irrational number he floundered, but when Westwood changed tack to quiz him about sailing, David excelled. He was given a conditional offer of 4 As and went up to Cambridge in October 1981.
His love of sailing came from his father, who taught him rigorously on land before taking to the water. As an eight year-old, he sailed with his father from Lymington across the Solent to Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight in their 10-foot Mirror dinghy. Sliding into a solitude, he recalled being thrilled by the realisation they had disappeared from the world’s gaze. It was sailing with his father that David credited as giving him access to the University of Cambridge, as well as his enchantment with isolation.
Determined to study Physics and Theoretical Physics in his final year, he struggled with lectures and course work but did well in the lab. When his lower second class degree seemed to close off a research career, he got a summer job with Dr Chris Doake in the geophysics department at BAS. A grant enabled him to do an MSc at Durham after which he joined BAS as a glacier geophysicist in 1985.
His first trip South – by air to Montevideo and then on the BAS ship RRS John Biscoe – was not plain sailing. Even before making camp on the Rutford Ice Stream, the object of his data gathering, David dislocated his shoulder, was forced to abandon the Biscoe in thick sea ice and spent three weeks digging out 600 drums of aviation fuel buried under 400 tonnes of snow on Spaatz Island.
In almost four decades at BAS, David spent the equivalent of two years under canvas in the Antarctic: with clothing hanging to dry in the apex of a pyramid tent, the primus stove roaring for tea, he thought there was no better place. That first season, however, remained the most significant watershed in his life: in the Antarctic, he felt he’d grown up and found his place in the world.
In 1985, while David was on the Rutford Ice Stream, a conference in Villach, Austria framed the science that would guide his career. The conference brought together for the first time experts in all areas of what was then termed ‘the Greenhouse Effect’. The advisory group established following the conference went on to become the IPCC, which to this day provides scientific advice to the Framework Convention on Climate Change, and which David served for 15 years from 1999 to 2014.
When in 2003 David moved to rural Northamptonshire with his wife Jacqui, it was green and pleasant countryside. He became fascinated, however, with the county’s preeminence in tanning leather and making fine leather goods. In 2010, he stumbled on a shop selling leather craft supplies. Aided by a dinner fork and a sharpened nail, he made a case for his iPad, progressing to handbags, boxes and a leather bottle modeled on one brought up from the mud of the English Channel with the Mary Rose. Despite being a lifetime away from the skill of his adopted county’s cobblers, he felt the quiet days spent in his shed with needles, knives and the smell of beeswax were rarely wasted.
David loved animals especially dogs and horses, he learnt to ride when he met Jacqui and became an accomplished rider, exploring many parts of the world on horseback (Africa, Chile, New Zealand, USA and Wales). He very much enjoyed a gallop on Holkham Beach in Norfolk.
David excelled at endurance sports enjoying triathlons, fell running and long distance open water swimming. He completed an Iron Man and the last major event he took place in was a swim of 5.25 miles on Lake Coniston in 2019 where he came 3rd out of 47 in his age group.
David enjoyed cooking and was an inventive chef never following a recipe, his paella was famous amongst his many friends in Northamptonshire, always cooked outside watching the sunset over the Tove Valley.
In the summer of 2022 David organised a festival party at his house for 150 people to celebrate his and Jacqui’s 60th birthdays. Over 60 people camped out overnight in campervans and under canvas and everything was organized perfectly, the event even had perfect weather.
As his final project, David made an urn – a bright green leather cylinder stitched in yellow thread and marked with his initials. As this obituary is based on the draft of a book David was working on – Essays on Antarctica and climate change with diversions of a more personal nature – it seems right the end of the story should be his words.
“When the time comes, Jacqui will carry it across the fields with friends and as many dogs and horses as can be mustered, to scatter the contents beneath my favourite tree. An English oak, which in winter provides dozens of sheep with shelter from the rain, and in summer gives them protection from the sun. After that, I suggest Jacqui uses the urn to hide a bottle of the best booze.”
He is survived by his wife Jacqui.
David Glyn Vaughan, glaciologist, born 23 October 1962; died 9 February 2023.
Obituary written by Becky Allen, writer and friend.