Dr. Geoffrey “Graeme” Carré Claridge (1931-2021)

Left: Graeme at Scott Base on his first trip to Antartica in 1959 (photo: John McCraw)
Right: Graeme at Beacon Heights on his second to last Antartic trip in about 1992 (photo: Megan Balks).

With great sadness, the IPA has been informed of the passing of Antarctic soil and permafrost pioneer, Graeme Claridge, in May 2021.

Graeme was born in Dannevirke, New Zealand, in 1931. He attended Hawera Technical High School where he was dux in 1947.  Graeme studied chemistry at Auckland University College. His research was in x-ray crystallography and consisted of a detailed, iterative study and calculations of thousands of x-ray diffraction patterns of crystals. Each cycle took about two months of calculation, all done without the aid of computers. He was awarded his PhD in 1953. Ten years later, during a year spent at Penn State University, Graeme and a colleague loaded his data into a computer and repeated Graeme’s three years of work in seven minutes.  

Graeme commenced work at Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) Soil Bureau in February 1953. The main work at that time was the nature of the clay minerals in soil and the development of methods for their study. Graeme was involved in a range of work at DSIR Soil Bureau, including investigating the potential for corrosion of the steel casings of geothermal steam bores, extensive catchment studies related to soil and stream geochemistry, and investigations of clay materials from the Pacific Islands. Much of this work was stopped when DSIR Soil Bureau was restructured in 1988 and Graeme was made redundant. As a careful, studious, and patient scientist this was a devastating blow to Graeme to see the institution and his (yet incomplete) life’s work summarily dismissed. 

Graeme is best remembered for his major contribution to study of soils in the Ross Sea Region of Antarctica. He first travelled to Antarctica in the summer of 1959-60 with John D. McCraw. Claridge and McCraw were given a rather ambitious brief. They were told to:

  • Seek for evidence of any soil processes currently operating in Antarctica and to produce a small-scale soil map of the Ross Dependency (an area of 450,000 km2);
  • Look for any traces of buried soils or other evidence of changes in climate;
  • Study past and present chemical and physical weathering;
  • Investigate the relationship of the permafrost table to topography;
  • Investigate the organic cycle under polar conditions; and  
  • Gather geological and botanical information. 

The trip was successful, establishing that there were indeed soils, albeit only weakly developed, in Antarctica, producing a preliminary soil map of the Taylor Valley and a number of other publications. While McCraw never returned to Antarctica Graeme continued the work in a long and successful partnership with Iain Campbell commencing in 1964.

The question that Graeme formulated, in order to get back to the Antarctic and indulge his passion, was, “would there be more signs of soil formation in northern areas and less in the southern areas?”. Graeme, together with Iain Campbell, put together a three month expedition to answer this question also visiting areas that featured prominently in Scott’s Antarctic expeditions.

The results of the 1964/65 exploration were not as expected. Somewhat strangely, they found well developed, red coloured, salty soils in some high altitude southern inland areas, which they concluded were extremely old.  These soils have recently been confirmed to be around 14 million years old.  The results from this expedition naturally led to more questions, and seven further expeditions with even more questions over the following 23 years. The results allowed Campbell and Claridge to show how the soils in Antarctica were formed and how Antarctic ice sheets had behaved over many millions of years.  During the 1970s Graeme taught himself Russian and visited Russia in a bid to better understand their work on Cryosols. 

From 1964 to 1988, while in the DSIR, they co-authored 31 Antarctic scientific publications, one of which was a book on Antarctic soils. The period working independently, after leaving the DSIR, was scientifically very productive with a further 53 co-authored Antarctic publications.

During the 31-year period in which Graeme and Iain undertook expeditions to Antarctica, they shared a polar tent over about one and a half years of their lives, and this was invariably a harmonious relationship. While they each had distinctly different personalities, they complimented each other in respect of their skills and abilities. Iain provided leadership and enthusiasm to push into new areas and drive the work, while Graeme slowly and carefully worked through the details. 

Graeme’s scientific legacy lives on through his numerous publications. Of particular note is Campbell and Claridge’s 1987 book: Antarctica: Soils, Weathering Processes, and Environment, which remains a widely cited, classic text on Antarctic Soils. In 1991, Graeme was awarded the prestigious Polar Medal.

Graeme had a strong empathy for the early Antarctic explorers and their heroics and had an extensive knowledge and feeling for Antarctic history.  

Graeme hated to waste anything and was always an improviser, saving other people’s cast-offs and making do with whatever came to hand.  He spent countless hours fixing or repairing everything from his elderly cars to mending his socks in evenings in the tent.  He wore the same boots on his last Antarctic trip as on his first, constantly repairing them including patching them up with fiberglass.

Graeme and Iain’s long and successful partnership in Antarctica provided them with a shared and similar philosophy for that wonderful place, which can be summed up in these lines:

“This is a land wrought by the most powerful forces in nature; a silent, ghostly place, where earth’s heartbeat and even time appear to be frozen; an unforgiving place that reveals the puniness and futility of human endeavour; a place where present time and eternity seem to meet and can readily be perceived; a land whose natural features are expressed with exquisite beauty;  a welcoming place, for those who know it as their spiritual home.” (Iain Campbell in prep.).

Graeme will be remembered as a humble, stoic, and practical man with a great love of wilderness areas and an ironic sense of humour. He was a careful, thorough scientist who had a truly encyclopaedic knowledge of all things Antarctic and contributed greatly to our understanding of soils in Antarctica. 

Prepared by Iain Campbell and Megan Balks with input from notes written by Graeme and information supplied by the Claridge family.