In Conversation: Norbert Untersteiner with John Mike Wallace: Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Did you know?
Did you know?

Untersteiner camped and drifted in the Arctic among ice floes in the Bering Sea in the 1970s while leading a team of researchers to study sea ice movement.

Norbert Untersteiner

Chapman Chair 1998-2005


By Uma Bhatt, then associate professor in Atmospheric Sciences, published in the CNSM fall 2005 newsletter.

As Many who work and study in the sciences at UAF know, beloved Chapman Chair professor Norbert Untersteiner is retiring from the appointed position at the end of the fall semester. In this issue, it is our pleasure to highlight his scientific accomplishments and look back on the activities that took place at UAF during his tenure.

Scientific Accomplishments

Professor Untersteiner was recruited to lead the U.S. entry into the field of Arctic research during the International Geophysical year (1957-58). He has been a dominant force in the field ever since, making fundamental contributions to our knowledge of sea ice-ocean-atmosphere interactions. His pioneering work on the quantitative understanding of sea ice thermodynamic processes led to a numerical model (Maykut and Untersteiner, 1971), which has been used and mimicked ever since in some form or other and has survived into every modern climate model.

Beyond his research, Prof. Untersteiner’s leadership has spawned a wealth of inter-disciplinary research activities: During the 1970s, he was the director of the Arctic Ice Dynamics Joint Experiment (AIDJEX). AIDJEX led to an improved understanding of sea ice dynamics. This information was then incorporated into numerical models, making Prof. Untersteiner instrumental in the implementation of both thermodynamics and dynamics in sea ice models, which are used today to quantity climate change projections in polar regions.

In 1979, as a contribution to the Global Atmospheric Research Program (GARP), Untersteiner began a program that used automated measurement platforms to monitor ice motion, surface atmospheric pressure and temperature. This program, which later evolved into the International Arctic Data Buoy Program, has for nearly 25 years provided the most important database for Arctic research. Data from this program are being used by thousands of researchers, investigating such diverse topics as weather analysis and forecasts, climate modeling and the dispersion of pollutants.

In the 1990s, again it was Prof. Untersteiner’s leadership that helped launch the Surface heat Budget of the Arctic Ocean (SHEBA) project. This highly successful multi-agency experiment on the frozen ice pack involved atmospheric scientists, oceanographers, geophysicists, chemists and biologists from many countries. Data from this experiment are being mined by yet another generation of scientists from many fields, leading to deeper understanding of the Arctic climate system.

On the international front, he was the chair of the Arctic Climatology Project of the Environmental Task Force set up by Vice President Gore. This work led to the Environmental Working Group climate atlas, which greatly increased publicly available data on air, sea, and ice conditions in the Arctic. He has been a science advisor to numerous Federal agencies and has a strong international presence: Norbert has received awards for his research from Austria and the Former Soviet Union.

Norbert’s work builds a bridge between early work on ice albedo feedbacks in climate change scenarios (e.g. Budyko) and 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 a critical element in climate change predictions. His breadth of knowledge about polar science (e.g. chemistry, biology, geology) is impressive and serves as an inspiration for how we must ‘think’ in order to begin to understand the complex interactions between the various components that make up the earth system.

As the Chapman Chair professor, Norbert brought an array of eminent scientists to give stimulating lectures, and short courses, which led to the enrichment of the scientific thought at UAF.

During the first four years (1999-2002) of his tenure, the invited speakers generally spent a week in Fairbanks and presented two lectures (Tuesday-Thursday) 3:30-5PM). They were available for scientific discussions during their stay and were given a desk in the Mather Library or in the IARC building. The discussions during the seminars became quite lively at times, making them even more memorable for those who attended. Lectures covered topics such as Snowball Earth, Milankovich Theory, the PDO, the AO, the application of Feynman’s methods to the earth system, was there ever an ice-free Arctic?, Polar Amplification, and the Eocene warm period, to mention just a few.

Starting in Fall 2002 Norbert arranged for month-long courses to provide more in depth discussion on a particular topic. The first short course (Fall 2002), given by Dr. Mike Wallace, was titled Strategies and Methods for Studying Large Climate Data Sets and played to a packed room. This was followed by Ice Physics given by Prof. George Ewing (Spring 2003), Changing Pathways in the Arctic by Prof. Robie Macdonald (Fall 2003), Glaciers and Climate Change by Prof. Charles Raymond (Spring 2004), Earth’s Climate: Past Changes and Future Prospects by Prof. John Kutzbach (Fall 2004), The Physical Environment of Polar Oceans by Dr. Ed Carmack (Spring 2005) and Magnetic Fields in Nature by Prof. Ron Merrill (Fall 2002). These lectures were well attended by scientists of all generations from UAF. The visits helped to develop new ties and renew old relationships between UAF scientists and the visitors. We acknowledge the amazing job that Norbert has done as Chapman Chair to serve the UAF community and thank him for leaving a lasting legacy.

Mentor and Friend

Anyone who has spent any amount of time with Norbert knows that he is a very special person. He has claimed a special place in the hearts of his multitude of multi-generational friends in Fairbanks. We captured a glimpse of those friendships here on these pages. Some of us have known him since he became Chapman Chair in 1999 while others have known him from AIDJEX days, but all of us have been influenced positively by knowing him. We thank him for all that he has done for UAF as the Chapman Chair and look forward to many more ski trips, dinner parties, and woodworking projects.

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