Norbert Untersteiner passes away at 86

April 23, 2012


Norbert Untersteiner

Norbert Untersteiner, known to many in the International Arctic Research Center and the Geophysical Institute, died in Washington on March 14, 2012. He was 86.

Untersteiner was an advisory board member for both the GI and IARC. Untersteiner led the IARC Science Advisory Board during IARC's formation.

"His thoughtful perspective and sage advice benefited IARC's science and its management in many ways," IARC Director Larry Hinzman wrote in a letter to Untersteiner's children Krystyna and Lukas. "His direction and vision on establishing priorities of national and international importance charted our development and long-term trajectory."

Untersteiner had a zest for life and exploration. He spent a year on the Arctic Ocean stationed on a drifting ice station in the late 1950s, during the International Geophysical Year. As recently as 2010, Untersteiner was co-author on a paper about evaporation from the sea-ice surface that used data from his IGY measurements in 1957-1958.


After he retired from the University of Washington, he was the Sydney Chapman Professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks from 1999 to 2005. In addition to making lasting friends here, he enjoyed the climate and culture of Fairbanks, Dick Moritz of the University of Washington wrote in the eulogy for his friend:


"He remarked his great enjoyment of . . . the intellectual stimulation he experienced from the lectures, short courses and collaborations with students and colleagues there," Moritz wrote. "He particularly liked the mogul-free skiing on Moose Mountain."

Born in the alps of Italy in 1926. Untersteiner's father first took him climbing in ice, rock and snow when Untersteiner was five years old. It was a formative event. UAF's Peter McRoy recently remembered his friend's excitement when for his 80th birthday Untersteiner received a new pair of downhill skis.

Following the success of "Ice Station Alpha" during the IGY, Untersteiner ran other immense projects on sea ice. In 1969 Untersteiner and Ken Hunkins proposed sea ice measurements made simultaneously at a number of different stations spread out over a vast swath of northern ice. This idea became the Arctic Ice Dynamics Joint Experiment, which led to many insights into the nature of sea ice.

Untersteiner loved sea ice, geophysics, and people. He seemed quite happy with the way his life turned out, based on his quote from an interview conducted by Brian Shoemaker in 2000:

“A person who has to go every day to some boring job to do something that they don't really enjoy simply because it brings home the bacon has my full sympathy. My life wasn't like that at all. Most of what I did was very, very interesting and if I had been born independently wealthy, I might have done the same thing just for my own amusement. I think I was lucky and I did the right thing."



PHOTO CAPTION/CREDIT: Norbert Untersteiner pictured during his time as the UAF Chapman Chair. Photo courtesy of the Untersteiner family.