The Ice Man

When Al Gore and other global-warming experts want to come in out of the cold, they turn to Boulder's Konrad Steffen.

Over the next decade, they watched the average winter temperature on the ice sheet increase by six degrees, an amount so improbable that their colleagues at first didn't believe them.

The ice, it seemed, was moving toward the sea faster than could be explained by rising temperatures alone. The researchers concluded that meltwater was making its way through the ice and lubricating the bedrock below. This allowed the ice to spread out faster and made it more susceptible to melting — which is why Steffen believes the UN panel's sea-level predictions are significantly understated.

"This is something some glaciologists thought would not happen, and it had major implications about how fast climate changes could affect the ice flow, cause changes in ice mass and sea-level rise," says Jay Zwally, a NASA glaciologist who tracked the speed of the ice.

Konrad Steffen studies climate change from the Greenland ice sheet.
Konrad Steffen studies climate change from the Greenland ice sheet.

"For someone so accomplished, [Steffen] has not received the same degree of public and media attention as some of our Boulder colleagues," says Roger Pielke Jr., a professor of Environmental Studies at CU and a CIRES fellow. "He is as accomplished as anyone in the climate community, but he is very careful in his public descriptions of the state of science and is very open about what is well understood and what remains subject to a high degree of uncertainty."

Some scientists say the earth could be entering a phase that, hundreds or thousands of years down the road, will lead to the complete dissolution of the Greenland ice sheet and raise the sea level by 21 feet. Worse yet, Steffen recently led a study showing that an area of ice the size of California had melted in west Antarctica, a region thought to be largely undisturbed by global warming.

But making people care is a challenge.

Climate "is never local," he says. "Greenland shows the environment can change quite fast. We could see similar change here in Colorado."

This summer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Steffen's research station in Greenland. Both on the ice sheet and in Boulder, Steffen is participating in a research campaign called the International Polar Year, in which 5,000 scientist from sixty nations are focusing on what is causing — and what can be done about — the dramatic changes in Arctic and Antarctic regions. He is also planning a series of talks for the general public about climate change.

"You always ask yourself, 'There is uncertainty. What happens if I send out the wrong message?'" he says. "But that was five years ago. Now there is no question the sea level is rising. I am starting to worry that my kids are going to have quite a different world from the one I grew up in."

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