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Originally published March 22, 2012 at 4:46 PM | Page modified March 23, 2012 at 10:38 AM

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UW's Norbert Untersteiner was pioneer in polar-science research

He was chief of a team of scientists who in the late 1950s spent a year stationed on drifting pack ice in the Arctic. Yet for all his scientific worldliness, the UW professor emeritus had the common touch.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Norbert Untersteiner was a pioneer in polar-science research, chief of a team of scientists who in the late 1950s spent a year stationed on drifting pack ice in the Arctic.

The floating camps were the stuff of science geeks worldwide, mesmerizing school-age children of that era and helping to launch a career in oceanographic research that spanned more than five decades.

Mr. Untersteiner lent his expertise in the geophysics of sea ice to the ongoing conversation around climate change, consulting with individuals and institutions — from former Vice President Al Gore to the Central Intelligence Agency.

Yet for all his scientific worldliness, the University of Washington professor emeritus had the common touch — charismatic and funny, he could, even well into his 80s, discuss music remixing with his 26-year-old son.

Mr. Untersteiner died March 14 of prostate cancer. He was 86.

"He was a great scientist in the sense of being able to pose fundamental questions and having a curiosity of the real world," said colleague and close friend Mike Wallace, a professor of atmospheric science at the UW.

"He ran big programs not because he wanted to be the boss of something, but because he simply wanted to answer questions."

Mr. Untersteiner was born in Italy, grew up in Austria and in 1950 got a doctoral degree in geophysics from the University of Innsbruck.

He credited his early love of science to his physician father, who introduced a young Norbert to the wonders of discovery in the mountains around Austria.

In a 2000 interview he recalled how, in 1938 when Austria was taken over by Germany, he was forced to "march and sing these idiotic songs." He never marched again, he said, not even in academic processions.

As assistant professor at the University of Vienna in the mid-1950s, he was studying glaciers in the Alps and Himalayas when the UW invited him to participate in the International Geophysical Year (IGY). Scientists from more than 60 countries and 11 disciplines of geophysics were dispatched across the globe between 1957 and 1958 to re-examine Earth, using the latest scientific tools.

Tales abound about the grand adventures at Station Alpha in the Arctic Ocean that year — from a mad scramble to save valuable research work as their camp broke apart in the summer months to the unexpected emergence of U.S. naval submarines.

In 1962, Mr. Untersteiner joined the UW faculty.

And in 1970, borrowing from his experience with IGY, he designed and directed another excursion to the Arctic, the first major study of ocean and atmospheric influences on sea ice."It was a major reference point to see how things had changed since IGY," Wallace said.

Jamie Morison, oceanographer with the Polar Science Center in the UW's Applied Physics Laboratory, was part of that expedition. He remembers the IGY as a kid growing up in the '50s. "Of course, I didn't know about Norbert then, but I feel that in a way he had a tremendous influence on me when I was 10."

During his 35 years at the UW, Mr. Untersteiner served with several national and global institutions, including NASA. He directed the UW's Polar Science Center and chaired its atmospheric sciences department from 1988 until his retirement in 1997.

As professor emeritus, he remained active in his field and as recently as a year ago, published a paper on thinning Arctic ice, in the journal Physics Today, his wife, Krystyna Untersteiner, said.

Morison recalls about 10 years ago when Mr. Untersteiner's son was in high school and assigned a science project to build a water-powered rocket.

"Norbert about killed himself with that thing. ... I think it blew up in the sink," Morison said. "He started calling me asking how to reinforce the case of this rocket. ... It was clearly a student project that had gotten away from the student."

Mr. Untersteiner loved to ski — a sport he did well into his 80s — and also enjoyed music of all types, his wife said.

"Norbert loved nature and had a curiosity for life," Mrs. Untersteiner said. "He was an inspiration for so many people. He was a man who achieved a lot but not the kind of person who would impose what he had done."

Mr. Untersteiner is survived by his wife, Krystyna, and son, Lukas Untersteiner, of Seattle, and his children from a previous marriage: Florian Untersteiner, Andrea Herberstein and Teresa Indjein-Untersteiner, all of Austria.

A memorial service is scheduled for April 13. For further information, see the Department of Atmospheric Sciences and the Polar Science Center websites: http://www.atmos.washington.edu/events/norbert/and http://psc.apl.washington.edu/.In lieu of flowers or gifts, donations may be made to Kaplan Research Fund, c/o Swedish Medical Center Foundation, 747 Broadway, Seattle, WA 98122.

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @turnbullL.

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