The Ice Man

In the middle of a table in Konrad Steffen's office at the University of Colorado at Boulder sits a strikingly beautiful globe made of hand-carved gemstones. Steffen, a geography professor, knows very well that sooner or later the globe will have to be revised. The coastline will shift, swallowing the Nile River megadelta, flooding low-lying expanses of Bangladesh, encroaching onto the Florida panhandle.

On the globe, the changes will be a difference of millimeters, but on a worldwide scale, they could mean the displacement of tens of millions of people. One of the main reasons: the Greenland ice sheet, a gargantuan expanse of ice roughly the size of the Gulf of Mexico, is melting — and it's doing so faster than anyone imagined.

Over the past few years, the ice sheet spewed 250 gigatons of ice into the ocean, or "two and a half times all the ice in the Alps," Steffen says, turning the globe and planting his finger in the center of Europe.

Last month, former vice president Al Gore and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change won the Nobel Peace Prize for drawing attention to global warming. Earlier this year, the UN panel had published a report concluding that human influences were likely to blame for planet-wide climate change. The report warned that as rising temperatures melted glaciers and ice sheets and caused the oceans to swell through thermal expansion, sea levels would rise between 18 and 59 centimeters by 2100.

But Steffen, known to everyone as Koni, believes the Greenland ice sheet is deteriorating faster than predicted by these models. By the end of the century, he says, the oceans could rise by roughly three feet.

And when he makes predictions like this, powerful people listen. Steffen is a worldwide authority on Greenland's ice sheet and the director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES). The joint institution of CU and Boulder's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is the largest research unit at the university, with a $50 million budget and a staff of 550.

In early October, just before winning the Nobel Prize, Gore visited Boulder to meet with its many celebrated climate scientists. Steffen wasn't there — he was at a conference in Sydney — so Gore made sure they talked by phone. "He had follow-up questions at least as good or better than my graduate students," the professor says.

Steffen's recent research on Greenland's ice sheet wasn't included in the UN panel's study because it had yet to be fully understood and peer-reviewed. But it will appear in a report he is preparing for the Bush administration. It's an issue he hammered home several weeks ago during a presentation to Congress, where he was asked to explain how much of Greenland's ice was melting each year. Enough to make a column of water encompassing the entirety of the District of Columbia and stretching nearly a mile into the sky, he replied. "That got some attention," he says in a thick Swiss accent.

"Koni is a sensational researcher. The stuff he's doing is really on the cutting edge," says Susan Solomon, a senior scientist at NOAA and a lead author of the Nobel Prize-winning report. "He is right in the heart of what the key issue is for sea-level rise."

It started in 1975, when Steffen, a grad student from Zurich, spent the summer studying the arctic climate on an island 400 miles from the North Pole. Every summer and two entire winters since, he's traveled to the Arctic Circle, and from 1990 onward, he's focused much of his attention on Greenland. "We knew more about the backside of the moon than we did about Greenland, data-wise," he says. And summer on the ice sheet is a relative term. During the seven weeks Steffen and his team of grad students and scientists spend there each year, nighttime temps usually drop to 24 degrees below zero. "I seem to like the extremes," he says. "I am not afraid of cold."

Of course, he was probably a little afraid in 1979, when, while riding a snowmobile alone through the Canadian arctic, he got caught in an avalanche and was knocked unconscious. When he awoke, he found his vehicle destroyed, a bone sticking through his leg and his dislocated jaw flapping loosely. He also had temporary amnesia. "I had no idea who I was; I had no idea where I was," he says nonchalantly. "I learned by reading my field book." By the time he was evacuated, a day later, he'd remembered who he was and written a farewell letter to girlfriend. That woman is now his wife.

In 1990, Steffen built a research station on the Greenland ice sheet, and by 1995, his team began experiencing a problem of a different sort — one that would form the basis for his future research. The station itself was coming apart. The living areas had been flooded with meltwater, and monitoring towers sunk deep into the ice were toppling over.

This wasn't expected to happen, since the station was located on the ice sheet's "equilibrium line," the point where winter snowfall was supposed to cancel out summer melt. But the melt had been outpacing snowfall, and the equilibrium line was moving. Although he had gone to Greenland to study the climate, he ended up studying climate change.

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.

"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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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner