In memory of Norbert Untersteiner (1926-2012)

The Arctic is losing its sea ice. Today Arctic research lost one of its giants. Norbert Untersteiner passed away on March 14, 2012 at home with his wife Krystyna and son Lukas at his side.

Reports about changes in the Arctic are all over the news. Norbert wasn’t a friend of the media frenzy around every new record. However, it is hard to imagine any serious scientific assessment of these changes without encountering the work of Norbert Untersteiner.

Norbert is the father of modern day sea ice physics.  He was the station leader of the 1957 International Polar Year Arctic drifting station Alpha, the first manned drifting ice station conducted by the West. This experience informed and inspired Norbert’s leadership of the Arctic Ice Dynamics Joint Experiment (AIDJEX) in the early 1970s. This was truly pioneering research that required an ambitious field campaign with up to four manned camps on the drifting pack ice. It paved the way for subsequent numerical models of sea ice used in modern climate models which are used today to predict and understand global climate change. At the conclusion of AIDJEX, Norbert formed the Polar Science Center (PSC) at the University of Washington. As the Director of PSC from 1981-1988 he inspired the thoughtful integration of logistics, observations, and modeling, used by PSC in advancing Arctic research for more than 30 years.

In 1979 Norbert helped established the Arctic Buoy Program as a contribution to the Global Atmospheric Research Program. This later became the International Arctic Buoy Program (IABP) which has been providing invaluable data on atmospheric temperature and pressure as well as sea ice drift for the past 33 years.  This data set has helped reveal fundamental characteristics of sea ice, arctic climate and weather. IABP data have been used by thousands of researchers all over the world and are routinely used in global weather prediction.

Norbert’s career involved appointments in Washington, DC, working with NOAA and ONR advancing the cause of U.S. and international arctic research programs.  He served as science advisor to numerous Federal agencies. Norbert’s dislike for bureaucracy was always outmatched by his ability to maneuver through it and make things work.

In 1988, Norbert left PSC to join the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Washington as its chairman. During his chairmanship, the University of Washington cemented its international leadership in polar research, bringing together expertise from across its campus.

In the mid1990s, Norbert was again in the game, helping to get the SHEBA research program launched. His experience and insights helped shape this unique research program which involved an ice-breaking ship frozen into the Arctic sea ice for a year. Research from this program has been an immense contribution to climate research.

Norbert retired in 1997, but his contributions to polar research continued until his death. For the last 15 years he led the U.S. MEDEA Committee tasked with releasing, in cooperation with Russia, formerly classified information describing Arctic climate. This effort produced the U.S.-Russian Atlases that reveal just how much the Arctic environment has changed in recent decades.  More recently his work with MEDEA yielded public access to previously classified high-resolution satellite images from U.S. spy satellites.  His most recent efforts with this group, until just a few months ago, were dedicated to applying a new autonomous platform, “the wave-glider”,  to Arctic research. An appointment in 1999  as the Chapman Professor of Physical Sciences at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, kept his teaching skills honed and allowed him to bring many distinguished scientists to Fairbanks as guest lecturers.

Norbert’s work has helped transform early concepts of the role of the ice albedo feedback in climate change to modern climate models. By conducting, guiding, stimulating and coordinating research into the fundamentals of sea ice thermodynamics and dynamics over the course of half a century, he has provided the physical underpinnings for this critical element of the climate system.  As a scientist who spent a great deal of time in the field and understood sea ice like no other, he was never satisfied with how climate models represented sea ice. He kept asking  hard questions and helped drive improvements.

Norbert remained enthusiastic about science until his death. He was a frequent visitor and regularly called on PSC scientists to talk about some new idea or development. In 2011 he was the co-author of two publications, including a wonderful review about the state of sea ice research for Physics Today

Anyone who had the pleasure of knowing or working with him will remember him as a gifted scientist, with a quick wit, jocular spirit, and a  wonderful intuition for how things work and how to get things done.

We will miss him sorely.

Remembrances to Norbert from a 2009 event can be found here.  A Memorial Celebration of Norbert’s life will be held on the UW campus at the University Club (the former Faculty Club) on Friday, April 13 from 6-8pm. All are welcome.  For further information, contact Mike Wallace at (206) 543-7390 or the Polar Science Center at (206) 543-6613. In lieu of flowers or gifts, donations may be made to the Kaplan Research Fund, c/o Swedish Medical Center Foundation, 747 Broadway, Seattle, WA  98122.


If you would like to share a memory about Norbert, you can do so in the comment area below.

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Axel Schweiger
12 years ago

We invite you to share your memories of Norbert below

Kelley Knickerbocker
12 years ago

I’ll dearly miss Norbert. Kind, intelligent, and a stellar wit. RIP, good soul.

Cecilia Bitz
12 years ago

Norbert is one of my heroes. He inspired me to pursue my work and to think critically. He taught me in many ways, and I will always cherish his insider stories and sense of humor. In the last decade, he would call me every few months and ask me some probing question, as if I would know something he did not. Students of sea ice quickly discover Norbert’s beautiful writings where he translated his observations of the natural world first into clear schematics and then into quantitative models. His influence on the field is so much broader than he left… Read more »

Dick Moritz
12 years ago

Norbert was a legend in my mind before ever we met. I thought of his writings and the AIDJEX project as things high and good and far beyond my comprehension. So what a joy it was to meet him and become his colleague and friend, and share in his appreciation of music, his knowledge of history, and especially his sense of humor. We shared an anomalously developed sense of the absurd, which is probably what I’ll miss the most. Two vivid and quite fond memories of Norbert come to mind. At the NATO Sea-Ice meeting at the Hotel Villa Del… Read more »

Jean-Pascal van Ypersele
12 years ago

I learned first about sea ice during my physics studies at the Université catholique de Louvain from Norbert Untersteiner articles, in particular his 1971 paper with Maykut. Norbert came as invited professor in Louvain in 1982, and I also had the chance to attend the famous Maratea Sea-Ice meeting Dick Moritz refers too above. Norbert was rigorous, independent, creative, and with a special sense of humour. He was on the committee for my Ph. D. thesis on Antarctic sea ice and ocean (Advisers: Bert Semtner & André Berger), and he gracefully came to Belgium for the defense in 1986. He… Read more »

Olga Owens
12 years ago

Our families have known each other for over 25 years, and as a teenager I had the fun of babysitting Lukas when he was just a wee thing. My fondest memories are of Norbert’s wonderful and wicked sense of humor, which came out especially well in Austrian German; I’ll always remember his tales of bathrooms in the Arctic… More than anything, I take with me his views on the ice and global warming, esp. his observations (presented during a lecture to non-scientists like myself) that it’s at the edge environments that temperature changes matter: from -1 to +1 Celsius is… Read more »

Jim Weinman
12 years ago

Although I was a member of the faculty of another UW (Wisconsin), I heard of Norbert’s highly acclaimed achievements. I got to know Norbert personally when I settled in the UW Atmospheric Science Dept. We had several enjoyable conversations at departmental events . I will miss the opportunity to enjoy more.

Please extend my condolences to his family.

Fritz Neuwirth
12 years ago

I regreted to hear today that Norbert Untersteiner passed away some days before. As an Austrian (retired) meteorologist I wish to mention that he started his career in Austria at the Austrian Central Institute for Meteorology in Vienna. When I has been employed with this institute he was already in the US. But we, a little bit younger, meteologists admired him for his scientific work. To honour his outstanding contributions to meteorlogy he received from the Austrian Meteorological Society the most pretigious medal the so-called “Julius Hann Medaille”. To receive this medal Norbert Untersteiner was again in our institute and… Read more »

Jennifer Francis
12 years ago

Norbert is so many things to me. I use the present tense because so much of him is very much alive in all of us who were so fortunate to be touched by him. He was the first person I met when I visited the Polar Science Center as a prospective and very hopeful graduate student. After only a little while talking with Norbert in his office, I knew I’d come to the right place. Through my years at PSC he was a mentor, a morale-booster, a grandfather, and a thought-provoker. I’ll never forget Norbert the mountain goat bounding down… Read more »

Ian Allison
12 years ago

Vale Norbert.

You influenced us all with your commitment, enthusiasm and mentoring.

I remember in particular your early advocacy of the importance of sea ice in the Earth System, your appreciation of the importance of remote sensing for sea ice monitoring, and your advocacy of the importance of Antarctic sea ice as well as that in the Arctic!!

Although we met, or corresponded not that often, you drew me into an international science brother/sisterhood that was a major influence on my life and career. Your IGY and AIDJEX achievements remain an inspiration.

Many, many thanks.