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US climate change expert died ‘falling into Greenland crevasse’

A prominent Swiss-American climate change expert has died after falling into a crevasse ‘when a snow bridge collapsed beneath him’ in Greenland.

Geologist Konrad Steffen, director of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL), was reported missing on Saturday. 

Mr Steffen, known as Koni, is believed to have fallen into a crevasse while examining a glacier near Ilulissat in southwest Greenland, his research institute said today.

Christoph Hegg, Deputy Director of WSL, said: ‘His loss is very profound.

‘He was very much involved in the IPCC chapters on ice and oceans. There he was one of the leading scientists in his field.’

After going missing on Saturday, police initiated a search operation and on Sunday found evidence that the 68-year-old researcher had suffered a fatal accident.

Police spokesman Brian Thomsen told local newspaper Sermitsiaq: ‘We have found signs that the person fell through a crack in the glacier.

‘An accident has probably occurred and it is highly probable that the person in question has passed away.’

The search near Ilulissat in southwest Greenland was then abandoned, without the body being found.

The accident occurred a mere 100 metres from the camp – dubbed the ‘Swiss Camp’ – where Steffen was staying, according to a Twitter post by fellow scientist Kathy Riklin, who said it seemed a snow bridge had collapsed under him.

In Greenland, Steffen, assisted by NASA and the US National Science Foundation, had been building a network of automatic weather stations since 1990.

At the time of the accident he was doing maintenance on these stations, according to Hegg.

During his annual expeditions, he and his teams would examine the Arctic snowpack in particular.

The Domain of the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology (ETH) board president Michael Hengartner paid tribute to the scientist.

He said: ‘With Koni Steffen’s death, we have lost a uniquely kind and committed colleague. Everyone in the ETH Domain is greatly saddened by this loss. 

‘Our thoughts are with his family and friends, to whom we send our heartfelt condolences.’

Born in 1952, Konrad Steffen was a dual Swiss and American citizen. He had headed the WSL since 2012. Having studied natural sciences, he gained a doctorate from ETH Zurich in 1984. 

In 1990 he was appointed as Professor of Climatology at the University of Colorado in Boulder, USA, where he subsequently headed the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES).

Current CIRES Director Waleed Abdalati, who earned his Ph.D. under Konrad Steffen’s mentorship, said Steffen’s death is a huge loss for the polar science community, as it is for his family. 

Abdalati said: ‘I take some small comfort knowing he was where he wanted to be, doing what he wanted to be doing.’

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