16/01/2012 17:02 GMT | Updated 17/03/2012 05:12 GMT

Robert Falcon Scott's South Pole Legacy: 100 Years on

It's a matter of record that Scott and his men were not the first to reach the pole. But arguably, his was a far greater 'reward' - an incredible legacy of science and conservation which has endured and flourished for a century.

"Great God! This is an awful place and terrible enough for us to have laboured to it without the reward of priority."

Such were the sentiments of Capt Robert Falcon Scott exactly 100 years ago today, as he reached the geographic South Pole, having followed in the sledge tracks of the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.

It's a matter of record that Scott and his men were not the first to reach the pole. But arguably, his was a far greater 'reward' - an incredible legacy of science and conservation which has endured and flourished for a century.

Meteorological data, rocks, fossils and marine samples collected by Scott's party laid the early foundations of our scientific understanding of Antarctica - its geology, climate, and wildlife, including the amazing marine biodiversity of the Southern Ocean.

Today, as part of a truly international effort, the UK continues to undertake cutting edge science in Antarctica, largely through the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and its multi-disciplinary programme, Polar Science for Planet Earth. British scientists are collaborating with scientists from around the world to understand the important role that the frozen continent plays in regulating our climate, ocean and atmospheric circulation, sea level rise, and the role of Antarctica as a key component of the Earth system.

Just this week, an advance party from BAS braved freezing temperatures at subglacial Lake Ellesworth, in order to set up equipment for an expedition to the area later this year. The plan is to remove sediment and water samples from the lake, which lies two miles below the ice. It is hoped these samples will offer a better understanding of the region's climate in the past, and possibly establish signs of life, despite seemingly inhospitable conditions.

But Scott's legacy extends beyond exploration and scientific endeavour. In his last letter to his wife Kathleen, Scott wrote of his only son "make the boy interested in natural history if you can." That boy grew up to be Sir Peter Scott, one of the most influential figures in nature conservation, and a founding member of a number of wildlife and conservation charities, including WWF.

Itself celebrating half a century of conservation success, WWF is now recognised as one of the word's leading conservation organisations, with more than five million supporters across the world. And we are working hard to build upon the Antarctic legacy left by our founder's father, perhaps most notably through our efforts to protect the Southern Ocean.

It's a huge body of water, which covers 32 million km2 and represents 10% of the world's ocean surface. Although most of this vast area freezes over in winter, with sea ice extent growing to more than 19 million km2, biologically it is still an incredibly diverse region. The shrimp-like krill - its keystone species - feeds vast colonies of penguins, albatrosses, migratory whales, seals and other marine life.

This biological treasure trove has long been exploited, first by sealing and whaling in the 19th and 20th centuries and now expanding fisheries and increased shipping activity are posing a threat to the regions biodiversity. Such a fragile region requires proper safeguards and WWF, along with many other groups, is working hard to help secure a representative network of marine protected areas (MPAs) and marine reserves, which would cover more than 10% of the Southern Ocean. Currently only 0.5% is strictly protected.

In 2009, we supported the establishment of the world's first MPA located entirely in the high seas, protecting 94,000 km2 of penguin feeding habitat off the South Orkney Islands.

In 2011, we developed a circumpolar analysis of candidate marine protected areas that will contribute towards a representative system for the Southern Ocean. We are working with governments and industry to ensure that fisheries, particularly those fishing for krill and toothfish, are sustainably managed, and that the risks of overfishing, Illegal Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing, and seabird by-catch are reduced or eliminated. We are also working within the International Maritime Organisation to secure a mandatory Polar Code for safe and environmentally responsible shipping in the region. But we can only succeed if nations cooperate with a common purpose to manage conservation, fisheries and shipping sustainably.

Having spent 15 years working to protect the region, both for the British Antarctic Survey and more recently with WWF-UK, I have had the privilege of being a part of this great legacy. In November 2007, on my 40th birthday, I visited Scott's historic huts at Cape Evans and at Hut Point in the Ross Sea region, accompanied by members of the Antarctic Heritage Trust. The experience of spending several days in and around the huts where Captain Scott and his men lived, breathed, prepared and planned their polar exploration will remain with me forever. These simple timber buildings contain some of the most precious polar artefacts in the world, still in place 100 years on.

Today, we have the opportunity to leave behind an even greater legacy - a framework of protected areas that will ensure that the iconic, near pristine and richly biodiverse waters of the Antarctic and the Southern Ocean will remain healthy, valued, wisely used and protected for the next century and beyond.