Q&A with Liz Morris: work of glaciologists in Canada “utterly disrupted”

Third in our series of interviews on the Arctic, we speak with Liz Morris, glaciologist and Senior Associate at the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge.

Could you tell us a bit about what you do on the Greenland ice sheet? What’s your research on?

Liz Morris — Some time ago – in 2004 – we knew there would be a new satellite called Cryosat which’d measure the elevation of the Greenland ice sheet using radar altimeters. The radar can see through clouds and give us a continuous measurement of both the height of the Greenland ice sheet and the sea ice surrounding it. But we also knew that there might be problems – you might not get an accurate measurement of height because the radar goes into the snow and bounces back onto something like an ice layer.

So the idea was that we’d do a series of experiments to make sure that when the satellite went up we knew exactly what was going on. We’d have a lot of people on the ground in various parts of the Arctic – I was in Greenland – and we’d have aircraft using similar instruments to the satellite too. The satellite was delayed a bit, because the first launch failed, but we’ve got to the stage now where Cryosat is up in the sky and we have a series of data from 2004 of what’s been happening on the ice sheet to use to see what the satellite is seeing.

Over that period we’ve seen quite an intense warming of the ice sheet and a loss of mass. Some of that will produce a change in height that can been seen by the satellite, but sometimes you get a spurious effect – the snow becomes more dense because it is warmer and that means it squashes up, so you get a loss in height which is nothing to do with a loss in mass. The thing we really want to know is how much mass the Greenland ice sheet is losing, because that’s what becomes water in the oceans and contributes to sea-level rise, but the thing we can measure is the change in the elevation of the ice sheet. So we’re measuring something that’s not quite what we want to know so we need extra information in order to change what we’re measuring into what we do want to know.

So how do you measure the differences in density – do you have people on the ground taking samples?

Yes, this is where I came in because I invented a piece of equipment based on a neutron scattering technique for measuring density, so for the first time we were able to measure density over and over again at the same spot, and watch it changing. Before, people had to take physical samples of snow and weigh them, which is a destructive method, it meant you couldn’t go back to the same place and see what changes had occurred. So I was taking my neutron probe and traveling across the Greenland ice sheet each year – starting at the summit of the ice cap and traveling eight or nine kilometers across the ice sheet through various different altitudes and climate regions in order to see what the density was doing.

Was this project a UK funded one, or were you collaborating with other ESA researchers, with NASA, with other countries?

It started off as a UK idea. Professor Duncan Wingham had this rather clever idea for a new instrument on the satellite, and that won in a competition for the European Space Agency. Then they put together an international team of everyone who was interested in doing work connected to this. The Americans had a satellite called ICESat – that failed, it got some data but not a lot, but they will shortly have a new one. They’ve wanted to join in, and we’ve got a group that’s both ICESat people and Cryosat people working together on data.

There’s another satellite, one that works on a completely different principle, called GRaCE – the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment – and that attempts to measure mass changes directly, our problem is that we’re only measuring elevation, but they can measure mass. There are great difficulties in GRaCE as well, but I’m interested in their results and seeing whether they come to the same sorts of conclusions as we’re coming to.

At the Lords Arctic Committee recently, Peter Wadhams said it is getting increasingly difficult to work in the Arctic because sea-ice camps are hard in the thinner ice. Have changes in the environment of the Arctic affected your ability to work there? Or is it easier even? Are there new spaces to study newly opening up?

As far as I’m concerned, no, because I work on high altitudes where it’s cold and dry. And very occasionally you get a warm summer, with some melt, and that makes it a bit unpleasant because its unpleasant to have wet feet, but we’re talking a few days, nothing significant. So for me, no, but obviously if you want to do research on sea-ice flow you’d be an awful lot safer to be on solid flow when the sea is frozen all around you. If the sea ice is breaking up earlier than it would in the past, then you’d be a lot more nervous about your sea-ice caps.

Are there things that you’d like to see scientists study more, questions you don’t think are being examined yet?

My dream project was one we put together a few years ago, but didn’t get funding for. That was concerned with looking at the North West of Greenland – the Petermann Glacier area – an area where I think there will be massive changes. We can take a look into the future there, and see what will happen. Not to the glaciers with floating tongues, they have been doing dramatic things but my guess is that they’ll stop doing that, and as soon as they’ll get back to the land we’ll get a different situation. And up in the North West, I think you’ve got a chance to see what the ice sheet will be doing as it retreats over land.

I think one of the problems we have in the UK is that we have a very strong Antarctic survey, with a long experience of getting people into the field. The Arctic community is a bit more scattered, and it’d be wonderful if we could get people together in a more coherent form. You could make the British Antarctic Survey into a polar institute, and certainly a lot more BAS logistics are going North, but there is the question of the existing community which is strong but scattered, it hasn’t got a strong tradition of working together.

Are other countries better at building social infrastructure for working in the Arctic then?

The Canadians for example have the Polar Continental Shelf Program, which is their logistics organization and they have the Geological Survey of Canada linked to that, so they have scientists and logistics and university people all directed towards the Arctic. The Germans have an institute which is always, definitely, always has been bi-polar – Alfred Wegener Institute – the Russians, well all Arctic countries have a strong Arctic drive, the Norwegian Polar Institute does both Arctic and Antarctic research. You can understand why the Arctic countries would have a strong Arctic research history, but Britain does have a record of work on the Arctic, we just don’t have the organizational framework to go with it.

You mentioned Canada. Have you noticed political changes in terms of attitudes to your sort of work, in Canada but elsewhere too? Do you feel you’ve had more space to work on these topics because of interest in the UK?

I’ve worked with Canadians very closely and done many seasons in the Canadian Arctic. I’m close friends with glaciologists in Canada. I have to say their work has been utterly disrupted recently and they’re not very happy about it. Ten years ago we were working very effectively in the Arctic with the Canadians. They were strong players. They were doing some extremely good work. And a lot of their work was the sort of long-term work that government supported institutes can do, it’s monitoring, and it’s absolutely vital to get a picture of what’s happening on the climate change scale – of thirty years, not two years – so yes, I have noticed a change.

In the UK, against a background of economic collapse, science has held on. We’ve not done too badly compared to other people. I very much hope that as the economy recovers then we can do as much science… Well, there is really good science to do, in a very important area, so it’d be nice to have the financial resources to do it. And I hope we’ll get to that stage.

Finally, people who aren’t scientists, what should they be looking out for reports when it comes to the Arctic? What’s do you think people should be worried about, or interested in?

The dream response from the public is to think like a scientist. I mean don’t react emotionally to an image. There is that classic one of a polar bear standing on a bit of ice, floating away – any physicist looking at that, your immediate thought is hang on, what’s the weight of the polar bear, what’s the mass of ice, how can it support the weight of the polar bear, let me do a sum… That’s an exaggerated response, but it’s not “oh no, poor polar bear.” I’d just say think. If a satellite picture shows something the size of Hampshire has fallen off the Petermann Glacier a scientist would say OK, so what, it was floating ice, it doesn’t do anything to sea-level rise. And it’s just that bit of scientific knowledge, if people could get themselves a bit more educated – the Archimedes Principle – that would be the scientists’ dream.

But do you think that the public should be concerned about the Arctic?

What do you mean about being concerned?

I suppose the Greenpeace campaign at the moment reflects the Arctic as a site of a lot of signs of global warming, but also they are worried about oil industry drilling.

Ok, that’s two different things. One – do I think that looking at the Arctic is a good way of looking at some of the major indicators of climate change? The answer to that is yes. I wouldn’t be doing research in the Arctic if I didn’t think it was really critically important as a way of looking at what is happening, and what will happen with a change in climate. So yes, you should be concerned about the Arctic. But as far as opening up the Arctic for industry is concerned, it becomes possible to open it up for fishing if there is less sea ice, or as a transport route for ships, and you can get at places to drill for oil that maybe you couldn’t have done before. But that’s not science, that’s the development of the world. As a citizen I might say I wish they didn’t build on the green belt in British towns, and I wish they weren’t doing that in the Arctic.

Professor Elizabeth M. Morris is a glaciologist and Senior Associate at the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge.

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