John Heap

Antarctic Treaty negotiator who enjoyed a second career as Director of the Scott Polar Research Institute


John Arnfield Heap, diplomat and polar researcher: born Manchester 5 February 1932; staff, Falkland Islands Dependency Survey 1955-62; Research Fellow, Department of Geology, Great Lakes Research Division, University of Michigan 1963-64; staff, Polar Regions Section, Foreign and Commonwealth Office 1964-92, Head of Section 1975-92; Administrator, British Antarctic Territory 1989-92; Director, Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge University 1992-97, Executive Director 1998; CMG 1991; married 1960 Peg Gillespie (née Spicer; one son, two daughters); died Harston, Cambridgeshire 8 March 2006.

John Heap was an internationally respected polar diplomat and researcher who was an important contributor to the regulations protecting the Antarctic environment in the Antarctic Treaty.

Born in Manchester and educated at Leighton Park School in Reading, Heap's interest in the polar regions was first stimulated by his mother reading Scott's journals to him and developed at Edinburgh University, where he read Geography, graduating in 1955. As a member of the university's Mountaineering Club he climbed regularly in the Scottish Highlands, and also led an undergraduate expedition to the then little-visited Lingen area of Arctic Norway. The expedition provided an early introduction to both the high latitudes and to expedition science.

In 1957 he undertook his first visit to the Antarctic, travelling south with Sir Vivian Fuchs's Trans-Antarctic Expedition as a sea-ice observer. A research career beckoned and Heap came to the Scott Polar Research Institute, a department and research centre in Cambridge University (of which he was later to become Director), to study the distribution of sea ice off the shore of Antarctica under the supervision of Terence Armstrong. The Armstrongs were to become firm friends and near-neighbours of John and his wife Peg, whom he married in 1960. They provided a strong sense of collegiality in the Institute, which John Heap was to perpetuate much later.

Heap earned the degree of PhD in 1962, and his research was published as an atlas of Antarctic sea ice the following year (Sea Ice in the Antarctic), forming the first comprehensive survey of sea-ice distribution and variability around the continent.

Post-doctoral work in Antarctica and on the winter ice of the Great Lakes followed but, after a two-year spell at the University of Michigan, Heap joined Brian Roberts in the Polar Regions Section of the Foreign Office in 1964. This was a major change in career, if not in region, away from research to diplomacy, but Heap's science background and direct experience of working in the Antarctic were to be major assets in negotiations concerning the Antarctic Treaty and its associated environmental protocols. His was a critical advantage when faced with career diplomats fielded by other nations who sometimes knew little of the real circumstances and limitations of operating in the polar region.

Heap's considerable contribution to the development of the Antarctic Treaty owed much to his mentor Roberts, who was in many ways the architect of one of the world's most successful international agreements. Taking over from Roberts in 1975 as Head of the Polar Regions Section was a daunting task, but Heap set about it with quiet efficiency and over the following 17 years enhanced the reputation of the UK in many ways.

He proved to have the qualities needed to be a successful diplomat - intellectual ability, a facility for making deals, a certain subtle skill, combined with charm in playing the field, linked to a determination to ensure that the UK was almost always setting the Antarctic agenda. Heap was especially pleased with the part he played in the negotiations for the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which came into force in 1982. This provided the first international ecosystem-based fisheries management regime.

Heap also had a major role in obtaining agreement between the Treaty Parties over the Convention for the Regulation of Antarctic Mineral Resources and, when that proved impossible to ratify, he turned quickly to securing the future of the high-latitude environment through the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. He was politically shrewd, with a remarkable grasp of both legal procedure and Treaty affairs. His enlightened approach to the management of the Antarctic, in which science had an important part to play, was in contrast to many other countries who saw the Antarctic almost entirely in political terms. For these achievements, Heap was appointed CMG in 1991.

Throughout his time at the Foreign Office, and again following in the footsteps of Roberts, Heap made his intellectual home in the Scott Polar Research Institute, where he had been a research student. This allowed him access to the institute's unparalleled library and information resources and, importantly, to its staff with their knowledge and experience of the polar regions. Furthermore, with the establishment of the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge in 1976, Heap had access to an increasing range of specialist knowledge of the Antarctic which he mined to support the British position in negotiations.

The other asset he possessed was his permanent position as prime UK negotiator, a continuity granted to few diplomats. A primary contribution to the Antarctic Treaty System was the development in 1977, at his instigation and mostly deriving from his pen, of the Handbook of the Antarctic Treaty System - a comprehensive guide to the burgeoning and ever more complex web of procedures, documentation and practices which had come into force over the years. He wrote extensively about the Antarctic Treaty in books, journals and conference contributions. His prose was original, lucid and informed. He was justifiably proud of the skills of concise and precise writing he had acquired at the Foreign Office.

After his retirement from the Foreign Office in 1992, Heap was appointed Director of the Scott Polar Research Institute. In a difficult initial period, he handled the strong personalities among the academic staff with skill and tact and secured the long-term future of the institute within Cambridge University. He also saw the need for enhanced library and research space in the growing institute, and spearheaded a successful appeal to fund a major extension.

No one was more delighted than Heap when, in late 1998, close to schedule, the extension, including the new Shackleton Memorial Library, was opened by Alexandra Shackleton, daughter of Lord (Edward) Shackleton and granddaughter of Sir Ernest Shackleton. Heap felt the completion of the library to be a lasting achievement, and remarked, with typical modesty, "What a friendly and useful place this is" - in fact, the building won architectural design awards.

When, for the second time, Heap retired, this time from directorship of the institute, in 1998, he continued to be actively involved in polar matters. As chairman of the UK Antarctic Heritage Trust, he fostered the need to conserve the heritage of Antarctica through the preservation of the historic huts and artefacts of early expeditions, such as those of Scott and Shackleton. He was also Chairman of the Trans-Antarctic Association and Treasurer of the International Glaciological Society, the learned society concerned with the study of ice and snow.

He was elected a Liberal Democrat member of South Cambridgeshire District Council in 1998 and right up to his death continued to bring skill, insight and commitment to local political life.

Even in his last weeks, John Heap remained active enough to visit the family retreat on the Isle of Mull. On his return home to Harston, he continued to receive friends for tea and cakes, eager as ever for news of the polar regions.

Julian Dowdeswell

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