Professor Elizabeth Morris, OBE
Doctor of Science
Tuesday 21 July 2015 at 10.30am - Orator: Professor Martyn Tranter
Until the 1980s, opportunity did not knock even once at the door of most women who wanted a career in polar science research. That was before Liz Morris strode into the arena. Then, the best of polar scientists, who were just men, knocked politely at her door and waited their turn. Liz was the first, and so far only, woman to be President of the International Commission on Snow and Ice and the International Glaciological Society; the two most prestigious and powerful international organisations in cold region science. She acted as an exemplar for the many women who have since entered glaciology on a more equal footing and become eminent polar scientists in their own right.
A passion for the subject, an iron will and great fortitude are essential attributes to have broken into the slowly moving, male-dominated, glaciology bastions, and Liz has these in abundance.
It might be odd to note that none of Liz’s grandparents or parents were scientists. Her maternal grandparents grew up in South Wales, in the mining community of Bargoed, where her grandmother was an important member of the community, the local midwife. Her paternal grandfather was a groom and her grandmother a cook. Her parents both studied English here at the University of Bristol, where they also both qualified as English teachers. They moved to Chiswick in West London, where Liz and her sister were both brought up. A friend of her parents at Bristol was the Nobel Laureate physicist, Cecil Powell, who formed a lasting impression on them. Their recollections of their times here in Bristol seemed to resonate with Liz as a schoolgirl, because she discovered a great aptitude and bent for physics, rather than the Arts. She also loved mountains, a common passion for those living in the smoke. She followed her parents and came to Bristol, but in Liz’s case to read for a Physics degree. She was determined to mix her passions for physics and the mountains if that were possible. Her opportunity quickly came when her tutor asked her to write an essay on a topic of her choice. She, of course, chose mountains and was set the lady-like subject of “suitable clothing for mountain conditions”. Scorning this, she appealed to John Nye, one of the world’s premier glaciologists, for an alternative topic – ice sheets! So it was that Liz become interested in ice sheets and modelling how they flow slowly over the landscapes they blanket, so much so that she studied for a PhD under John’s supervision. It was a happy and productive time, despite John’s disapproval of her habit of eating fish and chips in the lab during long drawn out ice flow experiments. I hasten to add that health and safety regulations prevent this type of activity nowadays.
There were few opportunities for glaciologists when Liz graduated, so she moved to Dundee for 18 months working as an X-Ray crystallographer. Her colleagues approved of this topic believing, perhaps because of Dorothy Hodgkin, that ‘women were good at that sort of thing’. However, Liz hankered to return to glaciology. She moved to Norwich to work, again, with another of the world’s premier glaciologists, Geoffrey Boulton. One of the innovative things they did was to install an automatic pressure sensor beneath the bed of Glacier d’Argentière, in the French Alps. When the recording system failed, Liz became a very able replacement for the automatic pressure sensor, spending weeks living under the glacier taking measurements every hour. This type of fieldwork was much more to Liz’s liking, but the style of not being her own woman was not.
She applied for a mathematical modelling post at NERC’s Institute of Hydrology, Wallingford, and started to specialise in snow hydrology, including studies of acid rain and turbulent heat transfer
She saw the need for field measurements to underpin her models and was delighted to have the chance to work in the mountains of Scotland, Norway, Austria and Canada. Her efforts did not go unnoticed, and she was appointed as the Head of Ice and Climate at the British Antarctic Survey in 1986. This may not seem such an extraordinary thing now, but BAS only sent men into the deep field. Liz was about to change both their way of operation and their way of thinking. She, of course, became the first woman to conduct research in the deep field with BAS, paving the way for other women to follow. Liz has always had a reputation for being fiercely loyal and supportive of her co- workers, and current senior scientists at BAS have asked me to acknowledge the strong mentoring role she instilled in their now custom and practice.
Liz has difficulty standing still, as her love of field work perhaps demonstrates, and so the new millennium brought her a new role as NERC Arctic Science Advisor at the University of Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute. This has allowed her more time to return to her science, which includes a love of temperature and density variations in snow. This might sound a little left field, but measurements such as these are absolutely vital for understanding just how much snow blankets the Greenland Ice Sheet. Not too many people would think it a good investment of six to ten weeks of their spring and summer in temperatures of a balmy zero to a more chilly -58 °C to gather the types of data sets that satellite remote sensors need to calibrate their images. The work involves drilling holes and digging pits in cold snow, taking measurements in finger freezing temperatures, continually pitching and breaking camp in the cold, and skidoo-ing long distances across the ice sheet with little protection from the wind. For these reasons, there is still a dearth of these data from Greenland, but Liz has collected the lioness’s share. She conducted seven traverses of the ice sheet between 2004 and 2011. One of her field workers describes her as great company and a force of nature, making the seemingly unenjoyable enjoyable. One of her younger field workers said that the cold was, and I cannot repeat the first word, terrible, and yet he was not going to be out-worked and out-endured by someone old enough to be his mother. Her measurements are currently feeding into and underpinning the CryoSat project, which in turn is providing the research community with data on the net melt rate of the Greenland Ice Sheet, which is the principal, and accelerating, water source of sea level rise today.
Liz has rightly received a Polar Medal and an OBE for her services to Polar Sciences. She has made fundamental contributions to field science, made an impact on the organisation and culture of the discipline, and she has paved the way for women to perform on the basis of equality in what was once a male-dominated field. Mr Vice-Chancellor, I present to you Professor Elizabeth Morris as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Science honoris causa.