Scientist who revealed world's icecaps are melting is killed by climate change

The expert who alerted the world to Greenland’s disappearing ice sheet has died after plunging into a crevasse created by rising temperatures in the Arctic.

Glaciologist Konrad Steffen, 68, was working near the Swiss Camp research station he set up 30 years ago when the accident happened in poor visibility.

He drowned in deep meltwater at the foot of the crevasse.

Ryan Neely, a University of Leeds climate scientist who studied under Dr Steffen, said crevasses in the area “were unheard-of” until recently.

He said: “It looks like climate change actually claimed him as a victim.”



When Steffen, from Switzerland, first arrived in Greenland in 1990 to set up a weather station, rising sea levels were not a huge concern, although the scientific community had agreed climate change was under way.

But this changed after Steffen proved that not only were the ice sheets melting, but they were also moving and breaking up into the sea. He has yet to be proved wrong.

Known as “Koni”, he set up Swiss Camp on the western edge of the ice sheet and with a growing number of colleagues and students, would set out for weather stations every morning on a snowmobile, equipped with a satellite phone, an emergency sleeping bag, and a packet of Marlboros.

He only slept four hours a night, and kept going by drinking espresso after espresso.

Colleague Jason Box, a climate scientist, once said: “There has been speculation among us that he isn’t actually human. Some of his students believe he has espresso running through his veins.”

Dr Neely remembered once waking up in his bunk, only to hear Dr Steffen ask: “How long do you think it would take for the entire Greenland ice sheet to melt?”

He had been up for hours, making back-of-the envelope calculations.



The scientist was well known for his energy levels

He realised the melting ice was becoming a threat which world leaders should wake up to, and former US Vice President Al Gore and Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House of Representatives, were among the politicians who visited the camp in Greenland.

In 1997, Steffen flew over the Jakobshavn Glacier and saw that its tongue had collapsed, as though “somebody had hit it with a massive hammer”.

Seismographs began to pick up an increasing number of ice quakes, suggesting the ice sheet was juddering towards the sea.

The temperature was rising so steeply that at first Steffen did not believe his own monitors. After 20 years, they indicated a rise of 4C.

Zurich-born Steffen believed the scientific community’s predictions of sea level rise were too optimistic.

In 2007, after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted sea levels would rise by 18cm to 59cm by 2100, Steffen said: “Unfortunately, I think we are looking more like a metre.”

He told a journalist: “There will be a change coming, and obviously a change that we have not seen in thousands of years.”

Because of the decline of sun-reflecting sea ice, the Arctic is thought to be warming twice as fast as the rest of the world.

The Mirror last year reported from Greenland, highlighting how the impact of the climate crisis meant that in one generation locals had stopped being able to drive sledges, or hunt animals, such as seals and walrus, which would once have got trapped in the ice.

Another change was the appearance on the ice sheet of the kind of crevasses which claimed Konrad Steffen’s life on August 8.

He is survived by his second wife, Bianca Perren, a paleoecologist, and two children.

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