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Greenlandic glacier gets named after late Swiss glaciologist Konrad Steffen

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An extraordinary homage has been paid to three deceased glaciologists, who spent the larger part of their lives uncovering invaluable knowledge about Greenlandic glaciers and their dynamics. Among them Konrad Steffen, the former director of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest Snow and Landscape Research WSL.


For the first time in many years, the Greenlandic maps have gained new place names of non-Greenlandic origin. Three glaciers have been named after three late glaciologist, who all made exceptional contributions to Greenlandic society and science - Niels Reeh, Anker Weidick and Konrad Steffen. The latter of which died in a tragic accident whilst doing field work on the ice sheet near Ilulissat in 2020.

Thus, a marine-terminating glacier in the North that provides a strong connection between the ice sheet and the ocean now bears the name Sermeq Konrad Steffen. 

“The Greenland Place Name Committee has reviewed the proposals and we have used different methods of investigation to find out whether there were existing, unregistered Greenlandic place names around the proposed locations. In our decision, we have aimed to ensure that the proposals were in agreement with the relevant points in our current working basis, including extraordinary reasons for verification of place names in Greenland,” states a joint committee.


Naming Greenland glaciers after a person never happened before

The Greenland Place Name Committee has approved the proposal on 9 June. The issue had been in the works since the beginning of 2021, where the Committee received a joint proposal from four scientific institutions to which the three glaciologists were affiliated. The proposal was initiated and coordinated by senior researcher William Colgan from GEUS (Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, where both Niels Reeh and Anker Weidick did their research). 

The proposal stated why these exact three researchers deserved to have a Greenlandic glacier named after them, including technical details and justifications as to which glaciers. Furthermore, it contained numerous statements and support letters from an array of stakeholders testifying to each of the three candidates’ ethics and extraordinary contribution to science and the Greenlandic society. The families of the three deceased researchers were of course consulted as well. 

Apart from honoring the three men and their lifelong dedication to the Greenlandic glaciers, the decision to name glaciers after them also elevates Greenlandic culture, making it known to the broader public. Gian-Kasper Plattner of WSL worked on the proposal with members of GEUS, the University of Copenhagen (KU), ASIAQ Greenland Survey and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder (CIRES). He commented: “The decision to name one of Greenland’s breathtaking glaciers after former WSL director “Koni” Steffen is an extraordinary honour and distinction by the Greenlandic people and government for his contributions to Greenlandic science and society. Greenland - Kalaallit Nunaat as it is called in Greenlandic - was a very special place for Koni. He would be profoundly moved.”


About Konrad Steffen

Konrad Steffen established a series of automatic weather stations on the ice sheet, beginning in 1990. While maintaining this network from the “Swiss Camp” base he created, he worked first at the University of Colorado and later at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL. Steffen collaborated with GEUS on ice-sheet fieldwork in the Paakitsoq area between 1993 and 2020. He died in 2020, at the age of 68, in an ice-sheet accident while servicing ice-sheet weather stations near Ilulissat.

One of Steffen’s main contributions to Greenlandic science was documenting recent increases in air temperatures and ice-sheet melt rates due to climate change. These vital ice-sheet measurements are used by research groups around the world and have contributed to many research discoveries, including the observation that the ice sheet slides into the ocean faster during warmer summers.

His main contribution to Greenlandic society was consistently highlighting the climate-change impacts confronting Greenland in the international media, and strongly advocating for political action to avoid dangerous climate change for future generations. 

Besides leading the Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL from 2012 to 2020, Konrad Steffen was a professor of Climate and Cryosphere at ETH Zurich and EPFL. He was also scientific director of the Swiss Polar Institute.