Greenland glacier named after Konrad Steffen | Polarjournal
Sermeq Konrad Steffen, as the newly named glacier is called, is a terminal glacier flowing into the Arctic Ocean and is also emblematic of Konrad Steffen, who was closely associated with Greenland’s ice sheet and who also died in an accident there. Image: Michael Wenger, via Google Earth

Since the 1990s, Swiss glaciologist and climate scientist Konrad “Koni” Steffen had been closely associated with Greenland and the Danish geological research institute GEUS. His scientific activity allowed him to spend a lot of time on the world’s largest island, deepening his attachment. Now the popular and well-known scientist has been posthumously given a great and so far unique honor: a glacier on Greenland was given his name.

On June 9, the proposal to name three glaciers after people was officially approved by the Greenland Place Names Committee. The decision was made after a thorough investigation by the committee as to whether there were not already other, unofficial Greenlandic names in the regions of the glaciers. In addition to the Swiss researcher, who died in an accident near the now-defunct Swiss Camp in August 2020, two Danish researchers, Niels Reeh and Anker Weidick, were also honored for their work by having glaciers named in the north and southwest of Greenland, respectively.

The committee’s decision ends a process that began at the start of 2021. At that time, William Colgan of GEUS, who had earned his Ph.D. under Konrad Steffen, had initiated the proposal to honor the Swiss and the two Danish researchers associated with GEUS for their achievements and work around Greenland’s glaciers and culture with it. He received support from the head of Steffen’s former institute, Waleed Abdalati of the Institute of Environmental Sciences CIRES at the University of Colorado at Boulder, from Gian-Kaspar Plattner of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL, and from Eva Mätzler of the ASIAQ Greenland Survey research institute, who was on the committee at the time (and had vacated her seat for the time until the decision was made). “This is an incredibly unique event, a literal ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ cultural honour being authorized by the Greenland Place Name Committee for three very well-deserving glaciologists with huge connections to Greenlandic science and society,” explains initiator William Colgan of GEUS. And Eva Mätzler explains, “In addition to honoring these three exceptional candidates, this initiative promotes discussion of the Greenlandic heritage of place names among the general public.”

Since 1993, Konrad Steffen (far right) had spent almost every summer on Greenland, established a Swiss research camp, set up GEUS, a wide, internationally recognized measurement network for climate data, and guided numerous students in cryospheric research. Greenland always had an important place in his heart. Photo: WSL

The glaciers were not chosen arbitrarily, but represent the work of the respective researchers: the marine-terminating Sermeq Konrad Steffen with its inland ice-sea-climate connection; the land-terminating Sermeq Niels Reeh with its oldest ice from the last glacial period; the small valley glacier Sermeq Anker Weidick with its complicated moraine and ice patterns reflecting the complexity of climate change in the south. According to the committee, however, in addition to these technical attributes, the scientists’ contributions to research and Greenlandic society were also considered. All three of them had worked all their lives for a better understanding of Greenland in society. Especially for Konrad Steffen, the “non-Dane” in the group, Greenland was not only a place of research. Tirelessly, the Swiss repeatedly drew attention to the effects of climate change, which he measured and experienced right on site. Gian-Kaspar Plattner says in a statement, “The decision to name one of Greenland’s breathtaking glaciers after former WSL Director ‘Koni’ Steffen is an extraordinary honor 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 have been deeply touched.”

The naming is a further tribute to the sympathetic and popular climate scientist. In his name, a research grant for scientific cooperation between Switzerland and Greenland was also recently established by the Swiss Polar Insitute SPI. Furthermore, only a few days after the announcement of the honor, a commemorative symposium for Koni Steffen will take place in Davos, where both the scientist and the man Koni Steffen will be celebrated. We will report on this.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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