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Taking Research Out Of The Lab From the tops of cliffs to the top of the world, intrepid scientists push the boundaries of knowledge--and take a few risks

Sept. 08, 2003
Sept. 08, 2003

Table of Contents
Sept. 8, 2003

Inside Cover Image
Sports Illustrated Bonus Section: Si Adventure

Taking Research Out Of The Lab From the tops of cliffs to the top of the world, intrepid scientists push the boundaries of knowledge--and take a few risks

By Julia Morrill

Brian Latta, FIELD BIOLOGIST

This is an article from the Sept. 8, 2003 issue

Since 1989 Latta, 42, of the Santa Cruz (Calif.) Predatory Bird
Research Group, has gone to extraordinary lengths--and
heights--to study his subjects. While helping to rescue peregrine
falcons from the endangered species list, he has made treacherous
climbs from Russia to Fiji to downtown Santa Cruz (where he
scaled 300-foot-high bridges and buildings). "It's more like
survival climbing because it involves cliffs that are inherently
unstable," Latta says of his nonurban adventures. "Most
right-minded climbers wouldn't go near them." Latta has devised a
way of approaching nests in which, rather than climbing up, he
rappels down from above, often over large, loose slabs. "I've
been in places where I've thought, Please, God, I'll be good and
stop drinking beer and chasing women." In his latest project
Latta is braving the bluffs of the Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa
islands to trap eagles (which aren't native to the islands) and
release them on the California mainland.

Karl Birkeland, AVALANCHE RESEARCHER

For Birkeland last winter was an ideal one. In February a heavy
storm dumped snow on a thin, unstable layer of packed powder in
the backcountry surrounding Bridger Bowl, some of the steepest
terrain in Montana. "The conditions were exceptional," he says.
"We had lots of nice, big avalanches." The 40-year-old Birkeland,
who keeps an office in Bozeman and a second one in a small wooden
hut on Bridger Bowl, conducts most of his research--for the U.S.
Forest Service's National Avalanche Center--on skis. On 40-degree
slopes he takes temperature readings and, with a device known as
a penetrometer, measures the depth and stability of snowpacks.
"You have to go where the public is going," he says. "It doesn't
do anything to sit around an office." Birkeland, who grew up in
Lake Eldora, Colo., worked as a ski patroller in the Rockies for
nearly a decade before returning to school to obtain a master's
degree in earth sciences and a Ph.D. in geography. A spate of
avalanches made last winter one of the deadliest in North
American skiing history, and as a result, support for avalanche
research has grown in the United States. Armed with a $160,000
grant from the National Science Foundation, Birkeland will spend
this winter examining weakening snowpacks in an effort to better
predict avalanches. "An interesting snow year means it's pretty
dangerous," he says, "but that's when you learn something."

James Morison OCEANOGRAPHER

After graduating from the University of Washington in 1980 with a
Ph.D. in geophysics, Morison took an industrial job and knew
immediately that he was on the wrong track. "I had a little desk
in a room with no windows," he says. "I always wanted adventure,
and oceanography was a way of getting it." Now, however, Morison
observes that good explorers try not to have adventures. "It's
just a sign of poor planning," says the 56-year-old director of
the North Pole Environmental Observatory. In May, Morison
completed the fourth year of a five-year, $4 million project to
collect data at the North Pole. While sinking instruments to the
ocean floor nearly 14,000 feet below the Pole (to record ongoing
Arctic environmental changes, which should help scientists to
predict climate changes), Morison has endured temperatures as
cold as -40° and spent three weeks in perpetual daylight with the
constant threat of shifting and cracking ice. Of course, for him,
facing risks like that doesn't even qualify as an
adventure--proving, if nothing else, that adventure is a relative
term.

W. John Kress BOTANIST

You might describe Kress, the head of botany at the National
Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., as something of a
real-life Indiana Jones. Kress's quest, however, is not for the
Ark of the Covenant. Rather, his grail is the flower known as
heliconia and its relatives. His work has taken him on
two-month-long treks through Colombia, Panama, Thailand,
Malaysia, Indonesia and, most recently, Myanmar (formerly Burma).
Last month Kress, who graduated from Harvard and earned his Ph.D.
at Duke, published a book documenting the 12,000 species of
plants that have been recorded in Myanmar, many collected over
his seven years of exploration. It hasn't all been a bed of
roses. Yet for Kress, 52, who during those Myanmar expeditions
braved tigers, lost a colleague to the bite of a poisonous snake
and recently spent a harrowing night after mistakenly eating a
leaf from a poisonous, hallucinogenic plant, the dangers are
secondary. "I do this to know how natural ecosystems work," he
says. "My job is to discover the natural world--or what's left of
it--and when I get to a place and it's pristine, nothing else
makes a difference."

COLOR PHOTO: GALEN ROWELL/MOUNTAIN LIGHT CLIFF NOTES High above the Pacific at Big Sur, Latta demonstrates once again that a bird in the hand is worth the dicey climb.COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF KARL BIRKELAND HUNG OVER Birkeland, here measuring the depth of a crown fracture after a Montana avalanche, is working to make predicting slideseasier.COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF JOHN KRESS JUNGLE FEVER Kress's pursuit of heliconia has taken him deep into the wilds of South America.COLOR PHOTO: PETER WEST/NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION POLE SITTER Morison braves -40° temperatures to chart Arcticenvironmental changes.