Undaunted, woman pioneer is off again over the ice

July 31, 2011 - 1:44 PM

SUMMIT STATION, Greenland (AP) — Friends sometimes catch her gazing, entranced, at the wind ripples forming in the snow, or at the "diamond dust" glint of crystals delicately drifting down the Arctic air.

Her queen, Elizabeth II, may have hung the greatest honor, a Polar Medal, around her neck. But this Elizabeth's greatest joy, despite ominous brushes with hungry polar bears and dying snowmobiles, still comes from skimming across a frozen landscape in search of the ground truth of ice and science.

"Travel," scientists blithely call their risky research expeditions into the polar emptiness. And here once again Liz Morris was set to travel, a petite Englishwoman on the cusp of age 65 about to undertake a demanding, monthlong traverse down the 3,050-meter-high spine of the vast Greenland ice sheet — with a single assistant, two heavy-duty Ski-Doos and three wooden sleds piled with supplies and scientific gear.

"I think the big question is what is happening over the interior of the ice sheet," Morris said before setting off southward July 17 from this remote Arctic research station, which sits atop ice 3.2 kilometers thick in the frigid heart of the world's largest island, 500 kilometers from the coast and nearest settlement.

On her 800-kilometer round trip with assistant John Sweeny — seventh in a Greenland series begun in 2004 and totaling 3,200 kilometers — Morris is to do just one thing, but an essential one: measure the density of the top layers of snow in 10-meter-deep bore holes drilled at 12 sites.

That on-the-ground data will then be used to validate and calibrate the readings of the high-flying European Cryosat-2 satellite, a new eye in the sky for tracking the depth of snow and ice and thereby the melting trend in the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets.

The project led by Morris, of Cambridge University's Scott Polar Research Institute, is funded by Britain's National Environmental Research Council and was mounted with the U.S. National Science Foundation's cooperation. It's an example of the painstakingly detailed work by scores of researchers trying to assess how fast Greenland's melt may raise sea levels as the world warms.

"We could always tell you the day before the ice sheet disappears, 'Yes, it's going.' What we're trying to do is get ahead of the game," Morris said as she prepared for the over-the-ice trek, checking her snowmobiles' soundness, sleeping in a tent under the midnight sun in minus-12-degree-Celsius temperatures, readying her trademark all-orange traveling outfit.

With her Dutch boy-cut blonde hair, 1.55-meter ("on a good day") stature and 54 kilograms, Morris fits no one's image of a polar trailblazer. But in a way, that's what brought her to glaciology four decades ago, when she earned her doctorate in physics from the University of Bristol.

If she'd been born with a "very tough, agile physical body," she said, she would have been a mountaineer. Ice was a suitable substitute. Still, rock climbing around Britain helps keep her in shape, although for such Arctic traverses she must "fatten myself up" for the cold and the hard driving, for weeks of subsisting on dried food cooked in melted snow.

What draws her to the ice?

"I like the solitude," she said. "It's very beautiful. You look at it on two different scales — on the really detailed, centimeter scale, and then you can see hundreds of kilometers and big skies."

Her field work in daunting polar conditions dates back to the 1980s and an Antarctica where the British Antarctic Survey, then her employer, still traveled with dog teams pulling sleds, and where Morris became the first female regular on the research treks.

She's a veteran of five Antarctic traverses and others elsewhere, including the "scariest" in Norway's Arctic islands of Svalbard, when she and Norwegian researchers shut themselves up in protective wooden crates to sleep. Voracious polar bears came around often, clawing her door.

"We were always sitting up in our sleeping bags with a rifle between us, looking at the door, and wondering, 'Is this bastard coming in or not?'" she recalled.

Then here in Greenland, on a two-snowmobile traverse, one of the machines broke down, stranding them in the deep freeze of autumn 2006. For three days she and her assistant struggled futilely to find and remedy the problem, until a relief team finally reached them after a 200-plus-kilometer snowmobile dash over the ice. Merely "a major annoyance," she says today of that episode.

In 2003, Queen Elizabeth honored the intrepid Morris with a Polar Medal, given in recognition of distinguished service in Arctic and Antarctic exploration. Three years earlier the monarch inducted her into the Order of the British Empire. This may be her last traverse, at least in Greenland, Morris said. Too many trips over familiar territory dull the traveler's sharpness. She's still sharp enough, she said, but "that's how I'd like to bow out."

And how does her accumulated polar mileage compare with Robert Falcon Scott's, Britain's legendary Antarctic explorer? She scoffed at the impertinent question: "He did it walking, for goodness' sake!"

Might they likewise say of Liz Morris someday, "Think of it, she traversed the ice by snowmobile"? After all, young American engineers were already testing an instrument-laden robot here to replace human researchers on the ice.