Norbert Untersteiner was a pioneer in polar geophysics. He founded the modern thermodynamic theory of sea ice, and much of our understanding of the role of the Arctic in global climate change can be traced to him.

Norbert came from the University of Vienna, Austria, to the United States in January 1957 to serve as the scientific leader of Drifting Station Alpha [link to previous post], the first long-term U.S. camp on drifting sea ice in the Arctic. Five years later, he joined the faculty of the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle to continue his work on the physics (specifically, thermodynamics) of sea ice. From 1971 to 1979, he directed the Arctic Ice Dynamics Joint Experiment (AIDJEX). In 1981, his work for a NATO Advanced Study Institute resulted in a comprehensive textbook “The Geophysics of Sea Ice.” He went on to serve as director of the Polar Science Center at the UW Applied Physics Laboratory from 1982 to 1988, and as chair of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences from 1988 until his retirement in 1997. From 1999 to 2005, he held the position of Sydney Chapman Chair at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

In spring of 1992, Norbert became a member of the Environmental Task Force formed by Robert Gates, then Director of Central Intelligence. He continued to bridge the gap between the scientific and intelligence communities in a group known as MEDEA, which according to the New York Times, “sought to discover if intelligence archives and assets could shed light on issues of environmental stewardship” (see full article here). Norbert remained one of the MEDEA leaders through 2011.

Shortly before his passing in March at the age of 86, filmed an interview with Norbert. It was conducted by his friend and colleague at the University of Washington, John M. Wallace, who shared these warm thoughts:

“I’ve had the pleasure of numerous conversations with Norbert over the years, passing the long hours on sleepless nights waiting for connecting flights on trips to distant destinations, carpooling to work in the pre-dawn twilight on our visits to the University of Alaska, talking at length on the telephone expanding on the “quick question” that Norbert had called to ask my “expert opinion” about. He was a keen observer of nature and of people, who loved to share his insights and engage others in conversation about them. He was an accomplished storyteller, drawing on his own remarkably detailed memories of conversations and events from the distant past and embellishing them with his charming sense of humor. These interviews are our last extended conversations, conducted in his and Krystyna’s home on Green Lake in the fading sunlight of a December afternoon. Although the most important thing in Norbert’s life was his family, these conversations are mainly about his work and the relationships with people in his professional life, starting from the time he was a student in Austria and ending with a project that was still ongoing at the time of the interview. Although science and technology have continuously advanced during his lifetime and the people in his stories have aged, Norbert’s reminiscences have a timeless quality about them because they convey his sense of wonder, amusement, and engagement, which remained vibrant until the end of his life.”

For more on Norbert’s distinguished life and career, visit the Physics Today website.