A scientist, explorer, and teacher until his last days

Fred Roots *49
© Martin Lipman/Students on Ice

JULY 5, 1923–OCT. 18, 2016

It was a long hike over rough terrain to Greenland’s Ilulissat ice fjord. Suryaa Murali, a student participant in that trip last summer, recalls that the expedition, including a climb at high elevation, would have been a challenge for anyone — but 93-year-old Ernest Frederick “Fred” Roots *49 was undaunted. After all, the renowned geologist had made dozens of trips to the Arctic and Antarctic during his career.

The journey was organized by Students on Ice, which sponsors educational expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic and supports environmental initiatives in the polar regions. Fred Roots was a founding member. 

“It was mind-blowing, seeing this 90-plus-year-old man hiking up a tundra mountainside,” Arctic reporter and fellow traveler Ed Struzik told the Ottawa Citizen. “He [Roots] epitomized what most polar scientists are. They like to embrace challenges. ... He was a small man, a gentleman, and yet he could endure almost anything.”

Roots, who was named one of Canada’s greatest explorers by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and in March was awarded the Explorers Club Medal — an honor he shares with Neil Armstrong, Roald Amundsen, and Sir Edmund Hillary — died in October, only two months after making the trip to Greenland and the Canadian Arctic. 

“There are few Canadians who have a mountain named after them, but Fred is one of the very few who have had an entire mountain chain — Antarctica’s ‘Roots Range’ — dubbed in their honor,” wrote Explorers Club Yukon director Catherine Hickson.

Roots grew up tough in the Canadian Rockies, where he and his family loved skiing, hiking, and rock climbing. While still in high school, he was an assistant meteorological observer at Banff National Park; no matter the season, he would climb to a remote station at the summit of one of the park’s mountains to change charts and measure water flow. 

In 1949, after earning a Ph.D. in geology from Princeton, Roots joined a three-year Norwegian-British-Swedish expedition to Antarctica as chief geologist. The scientists were tasked with determining whether shrinking glaciers were evidence of a global phenomenon now known as climate change. 

“There was no question,” Roots told the Ottawa Citizen last August. “We picked up evidence that the glaciers had been bigger. This was the first solid evidence scientists had that climate change was affecting the glaciers in Antarctica.”

During that exploration, Roots made a solo 189-day journey by dogsled into Antarctica’s unknown interior unsupported, taking with him everything he needed for himself and his dogs and having no contact with the outside world. It was the longest unsupported dogsled journey on record, a milestone that still stands. 

Roots went on to found the Polar Continental Shelf Program — which provides logistics throughout the Canadian Arctic for field research conducted by research groups and the Canadian government — and in 1967, he organized a precise study of the North Pole as the center of the axis of the Earth’s rotation, which was key to developing modern global-positioning systems. After retiring as science adviser for Canada’s Department of the Environment, Roots remained a mentor with Students on Ice.

“Fred was a big believer in passing the torch to youth,” says Geoff Green, founder and executive director of Students on Ice. “Teens are pretty insightful and don’t suffer fools gladly, but students were enthralled by him. He treated the kids like they were equals, and on top of that he’d be out there on hikes doing everything the teens were doing.”

His work meant he was absent from his family much of the time; his wife, June, stayed behind and cared for their five children. Daughter Jane told The Globe and Mail that during the summers, June often would drive the children to wherever their father was working, and the family would camp.

Roots was “cut from a different cloth, from a different generation,” Green says. “He taught kids about science and understanding the Earth better. He also taught intangible things. He always said, ‘It’s not who did it; it’s that it got done.’” 

Fran Hulette is PAW’s former Class Notes editor.


VIDEO: Fred Roots *49

Courtesy Students on Ice