Interview with our Scientific Director, Konrad Steffen

  Konrad Steffen, a glaciologist and the new scientific director of the Swiss Polar Institute (SPI), has been involved in polar research for the past 40 years. His work has focused primarily on the Arctic, particularly the changes taking place within Greenland's ice sheet. He is also a professor at ETH Zurich and director of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL.

Professor Steffen, why is the Swiss Polar Institute so necessary today?

Research in this field tended to be conducted by small groups that organized their own expeditions and ran their own projects. In Switzerland, there had never been any kind of initiative aimed at coordinating all this work. The effects of climate change on polar and alpine regions are now so evident that we urgently need to coordinate our efforts and conduct cross-disciplinary research. This is what we did with the ACE project, where researchers from fields like oceanography, glaciology and biology came together in an attempt to improve our understanding of the climate-change process in a region.

What for you is the top priority when it comes to the polar regions?

At the SPI, one of our aims is to devise a strategic plan within the scientific community. More personally, I think that we urgently need to assess the mass balance of ice sheets across the globe. That's what will have the greatest and swiftest impact in terms of rising sea levels and changes to our coastlines. Instead of studying individual glaciers in the Alps, we need to look at the bigger picture and observe in detail how the atmosphere interacts with large ice sheets, such as those in Greenland and the Antarctic. We need to connect the dots to see how the system as a whole is affected.

What made the ACE such an innovative expedition?

There have been many scientific expeditions to the Antarctic, but they usually only cover part of the continent. This was the first time that an expedition went all the way around the continent in one three-month period, studying all the oceans during the same season. That provides a fuller picture of the issues, such as microplastics - during the trip, we really saw that they were everywhere! The expedition also served up attractive career opportunities for budding young scientists and enabled several research groups to establish long-term partnerships.

Are any other expeditions in the pipeline?

Yes, the next one is planned for 2019. The aim is to sail around Greenland. We are in the process of looking for a vessel and determining what sort of research will be undertaken during the trip.

Text: Sarah Perrin

Last modification : 15h18, mardi le 25 juin, 2019