From there, Steffen and his team will board a ski-fitted Twin Otter to southern Greenland, where they will be left alone on the ice sheet. Working through the nights and sleeping "only when necessary" to get everything done before bad weather socks them in, they will spend the next three days leapfrogging northward from one location to the next, repairing equipment and setting up new weather stations. "And then," Steffen says, his eyes lighting up, "we'll arrive at Swiss Camp."
Swiss Camp, located 3.5 degrees north of the Arctic Circle, is a collection of three semipermanent tents and a vestibule that doubles as a sauna. Steffen and his team typically arrive at the camp in late April, when night temperatures hover at around â€25F. A day's (or night's) work might include chiseling gear and work space out of solid ice, coaxing frozen equipment back to life, or hiking 10 miles back to camp from a broken-down snowmobile. "I have to make sure my grad students are very fit," Steffen says.
Shortly after arrival at Swiss Camp, Steffen often sets out alone on his snowmobile-packing a sleeping bag, a pack of Marlboros and a satellite phone-to scout a path through the ever-changing landscape of cliffs, meltwater lakes and deep crevasses that lie between the camp and the weather station. The station, 10 miles away, is set in a jumbled ice field stuck with poles holding aloft monitoring equipment that ranges from basic weather instruments to radio spectrometers, GPS units and seismographs.
"I remember when I first arrived at Swiss Camp," says Waleed Abdalati, a former graduate student who now directs the Cryospheric Sciences Branch of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. "I was thinking, What are the odds of this stuff making it through even one winter? And now, 18 years since he first set it up, if you made a list of the scientists who have used those data sets, it would be huge. Without Koni, the body of knowledge about Arctic climate, warming and melting dynamics would be severely limited."
MARLBORO (AND ESPRESSO) MAN
Steffen's contemporaries marvel at his ability to attract talent and long-term funding to his research projects-and at his capacity for work. At CIRES, Steffen supervises several ongoing field projects funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation. As a University of Colorado professor, he mentors a handful of graduate students while also teaching graduate-level classes and working on his own research. He has authored or co-authored more than 50 peer-reviewed scientific papers, and he is one of the few scientists who advises both Al Gore and the Bush administration.
"He only sleeps three or four hours a night," says Jason Box, a former Steffen protg now at Ohio State University's Byrd Polar Research Center. "There has been some speculation among us that he isn't actually human. Some of his students believe that he has espresso running through his veins."
Indeed, a strong cup of coffee is the first thing on Steffen's agenda in Schenectady. We park downtown and walk toward a caf in a cobbled courtyard, stopping outside to allow him a quick cigarette. "I quit once," Steffen says, "for 24 hours, in 1978."
As he smokes, he tells me how. In the late 1970s, Steffen spent two winters on an ice floe in Lancaster Sound, near Baffin Island, collecting data for his doctoral dissertation. While traversing a glacial slope, he set off an avalanche and was knocked from his snowmobile. He woke up some time later in a blizzard, with a dislocated jaw and a bone protruding from his lower leg.single page
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