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Greenland ice sheet claims life of renowned climate scientist

The climate science community is mourning the loss of a pioneering climate scientist and glaciologist, Konrad Steffen. Koni, as he was known to his friends and colleagues, apparently fell to his death in a deep opening in the ice called a crevasse on Saturday while doing research in Western Greenland.

Konrad "Koni" Steffen, a leading climate scientist who documented melting ice sheets, at the Swiss Camp research site in Greenland in 2007. Reuters

With nearly 15,000 academic citations to his name, Steffen, who was 68 years old, 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 he 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 Steffen and was with him right before he disappeared.

Box says the snowy, windy weather at the time was disorienting. He says Steffen "ultimately went beyond the safety perimeter in low visibility, windy conditions. Koni fell into a water based crevasse while the rest of us were working nearby, unaware. The last thing he said to us was he was going to look at data."

The team organized a lengthy search and eventually found evidence in the thin ice. "[We] found a 2.5 meter long busted through hole in the 3 cm thick floor of the crevasse 8 meters down," Box wrote in a message thread on Twitter. "I am told one is not buoyant in such cold freshwater. Since he was not found, I think he remains 8 meters down in the water." 

"Personally, Koni was like a father," Box told CBS News. "Immense man. Immense loss. Tears falling around the world."

In a tweet earlier in the day, citing Steffen's 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 Steffen served as scientific director, said in a statement on its website, "We will deeply miss Koni, 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 Steffen 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 Steffen's kindness, warmth and generosity.

Steffen started his career in 1977 when he graduated from ETH Zurich, an institute with which he still collaborated. "With Koni Steffen's death, we have lost a uniquely kind and committed colleague," said ETH Board President Michael Hengartner in a statement

Through the years he held many leading positions in climate science. Most recently, 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 U.S. vice president and Nobel laureate for his work in climate change, Al Gore, praised the influence Steffen has had. "Koni's renowned work as a glaciologist has been instrumental in the world's deepened understanding of the climate crisis," Gore wrote.

CIRES director Waleed Abdalati, who had Steffen as an advisor in graduate school and later knew him as a colleague, described his passion for science as infectious.

"I just remember thinking, he loves this," Abdalati said, "He passed doing what he loved."

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