• Konrad Steffen, a renowned climate scientist, died on Saturday after he fell through thin ice in Greenland into a watery crevasse.
  • Steffen spent much of his life studying Greenland's melting ice sheet. 
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Konrad Steffen dedicated his life to studying climate change.

The 68-year-old Swiss climate scientist spent 30 years studying Greenland's melting ice sheet. His research helped confirm that water from shrinking ice sheets is making sea levels rise, threatening coastal communities.

On Saturday, Steffen fell into a deep crevasse of water after part of the ice sheet he was studying buckled beneath him. His colleagues later found a hole in the ice; his body had vanished. 

"The crevasses of Greenland's melting ice have robbed us of one of the greatest and most unsung scientists of our time. Koni died the way he lived, tracking how climate change is affecting the most remote parts of our planet," Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Texas Tech Climate Center, tweeted on Thursday.

Bill Weir, CNN's chief climate correspondent, compared Steffen to "an icy Indiana Jones" in a series of tweets on Thursday, adding that he was "one of the most beloved and respected glaciologists in the world."

"Konrad Steffen died trying to warn the world," Weir said. 

A life spent tracking loss

Steffen spent much of his career working out of Swiss Camp, the research station he established on the Greenland ice sheet. Once buried beneath the ice, the camp's thin wooden legs now protrude more than a dozen feet out of the surface. 

"The station was growing out of the ice and collapsed twice," Steffen said in a video about his work in 2018. "The station is falling apart because [the ice is] melting away." 

After graduating from ETH Zurich in Switzerland in 1977, Steffen spent decades tracking the loss of snowpack and ice in the Arctic. His primary focus was Greenland's ice sheet, which has lost more than 3.8 trillion tons of ice since 1992, causing global sea levels to rise by nearly half an inch.

Climate change is raising temperatures in the Arctic and Greenland much faster than other parts of the planet, largely due to a phenomenon called ice-albedo feedback: Melting ice exposes dark water, which absorbs sunlight better than light-deflecting ice, thereby accelerating warming.

Greenland is especially susceptible to this because of a seasonal change in atmospheric pressure called the Northern Atlantic Oscillation, which has caused the region's ice to melt significantly each summer since about 2000.

In a 2008 paper, Steffen and his colleagues estimated that Greenland's average temperature will increase by 4 to 5 degrees Celsius by the year 2100. 

'His dedication to understanding climate change'

In addition to conducting fieldwork and publishing research, Steffen was an educator, inviting graduate students to Greenland to study the disappearing ice. He served as director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

"With tremendous sadness today, we remember Koni, his espressos and cigarettes, his dedication to understanding climate change, and the vitality he brought to CIRES in his years as our director," the institute wrote in a statement.

Climatologist Jason Box, meanwhile, eulogized Steffen on Twitter with a quote from Abraham Lincoln.

 

Steffen also worked hard to make leaders and politicians aware of climate change. In 2007, he brought a US congressional delegation led by Nancy Pelosi to Swiss Camp.

But he said those efforts often felt fruitless.

"Sometimes it's frustrating. I don't see any global actions taken," Steffen said in the 2018 video, adding, "I think there is some kind of a myth that, 'oh, we need scientists to solve this problem.' Science is there to give an insight, but the community together with scientists have to solve the problems."

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