Konrad Steffen, renowned climate scientist, dies in accident on Greenland ice sheet falling into crevasse

The climate science community is mourning the loss of a pioneering climate scientist and glaciologist, Konrad Steffen. He apparently fell to his death in a deep opening in the ice called a crevasse on Saturday while doing research in Western Greenland. With nearly 15,000 academic citations to his name, he dedicated his life to studying the rapidly melting ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica.

Ironically, it was the perils created by melting around Swiss Camp in Greenland, a research outpost Konrad Steffen founded in 1990, that claimed his life. Jason Box, a well-known ice climatologist at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, had spent many years working alongside him and was with him right before he disappeared. Box says the snowy, windy weather at the time was disorienting.

Konrad Steffen ultimately went beyond the safety perimeter in low visibility, windy conditions. He fell into a water based crevasse while the rest of the team were working nearby, unaware. The last thing he said was he was going to look at data. The team organized a lengthy search and eventually found evidence in the thin ice. The team found a 2.5 meter long busted through hole in the 3 cm thick floor of the crevasse 8 meters down.

Since Konrad Steffen was not found, he might be 8 meters down in the water.

Personally, Konrad Steffen was like a father to Box. Immense man. Immense loss. Tears falling around the world. In a tweet earlier in the day, citing his dedication to his craft, Box invoked a quote from Abraham Lincoln, “It is for us the living to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”

This sentiment was shared widely by the science community. The Swiss Polar Institute, where he served as scientific director, said in a statement on its website, “We will deeply miss Konrad Steffen, but are committed to continuing his mission towards making a contribution, big or small, to create a difference.” It included a link to a video about him and his work.

The statement went on to say, “We lost a wonderful person and true friend way too early.” An outpouring of memories on social media paid tribute to Konrad Steffen’s kindness, warmth, and generosity. He started his career in 1977 when he graduated from ETH Zurich, an institute with which he still collaborated. With his death, ETH has lost a uniquely kind and committed colleague.

Through the years Konrad Steffen held many leading positions in climate science.

Most recently, Konrad Steffen had been the director of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow, and Landscape Research (also known by its German acronym WSL) since 2012. Prior to that, he directed the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado at Boulder, a joint NOAA-university institute. The local Boulder newspaper, the Daily Camera, described him as an incredibly active leader and connector in the glaciology field, noting that, “In the decades since establishing the Swiss Camp, he brought countless graduate students and scientists to observe the melting ice and rising sea levels, as well as camera crews and a U.S. congressional delegation.”

Former United States vice president and Nobel laureate for his work in climate change, Al Gore, praised the influence Konrad Steffen has had. His renowned work as a glaciologist has been instrumental in the world’s deepened understanding of the climate crisis. CIRES director Waleed Abdalati, who had him as an advisor in graduate school and later knew him as a colleague, described his passion for science as infectious.

Konrad Steffen passed doing what he loved.

Leave a Reply