Three Greenlandic glaciers named after late glaciologists

Published 20-06-2022

An extraordinary homage has been paid to three deceased glaciologists, who spent the larger part of their lives uncovering invaluable knowledge in service to Greenlandic science and society.

Satellite photo of Sermeq Konrad Steffen

For the first time in many years, the Greenlandic maps have gained new place names after deceased persons. Three glaciers have now been named after three late glaciologists, who all made exceptional contributions to Greenlandic society and science - Niels Reeh, Anker Weidick and Konrad Steffen. The latter died in a tragic accident whilst doing field work on the ice sheet near Ilulissat in 2020.

Thus, a land-terminating glacier in the far North that features the ice sheet’s surface exposure of oldest ice from the last glacial period will from now on be known as Sermeq Niels Reeh (Sermeq is Greenlandic for glacier). A small valley glacier with complicated moraine and ice patterns reflecting the complexities of recent climate changes in the South will now be known as Sermeq Anker Weidick. Last, but certainly not least, a marine-terminating glacier in the North that provides a strong connection between the ice sheet and the ocean now bears the name Sermeq Konrad Steffen.

“The Greenland Place Name Committee has reviewed the proposals and we have used different methods of investigation to find out whether there were existing, unregistered Greenlandic place names around the proposed locations. In our decision, we have aimed to ensure, that the proposals were in agreement with the relevant points in our current working basis, including extraordinary reasons for verification of place names in Greenland,” states a joint committee.

“Incredibly unique event”

The Greenland Place Name Committee has approved the proposal on 9 June. The issue had been in the works since the beginning of 2021, when the Committee received a joint proposal from colleagues at the scientific institutions with which the three glaciologists were affiliated. The proposal was initiated and coordinated by senior researcher William Colgan from GEUS (Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, where both Niels Reeh and Anker Weidick did their research). Naturally, he is thrilled by the news:

“This is an incredibly unique event, a literal ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ cultural honour being authorized by the Greenland Place Name Committee for three very well-deserving glaciologists with huge connections to Greenlandic science and society,” he says.

The proposal stated why each of these three researchers deserved to have a Greenlandic glacier named after them, including technical details and justifications as to which glaciers. Furthermore, it contained numerous statements and support letters from an array of stakeholders testifying to each of the three candidates’ ethical good standing and extraordinary contribution to science and the Greenlandic society. The families of the three deceased researchers were of course consulted as well.

Promoting discussion on place names

Apart from honoring the three men and their lifelong dedication to the Greenlandic glaciers, the decision to name glaciers after them also elevates Greenlandic culture, according to one of the Greenlandic proposal partners: 

“It is a great privilege to be part of this initiative. In addition to honouring these three extraordinary candidates, this initiative promotes discussion of the Greenlandic cultural heritage of place names to the broader public,” says Eva Mätzler from the group behind the proposal.

When the proposal was written, Eva Mätzler was on the board of the Greenland Place Name Committee, but she resigned temporarily to join the work on the proposal along with colleagues from GEUS, the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder (CIRES) and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL).

Niels Reeh

About Niels Reeh

Niels lead annual research expeditions to Paakitsoq, West Greenland, throughout the 1980s and 1990s. His career included positions at the Danish Polar Center, the Alfred Wegener Institute, the University of Copenhagen, the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland and finally the Technical University of Denmark. Niels worked at GEUS as a researcher in 1985 and 1986. Niels died in 2009, at the age of 69, after a long illness with cancer. One of Niels’ main contributions to Greenland science was understanding the age of the ice sheet. He pioneered the theory of retrieving so-called ‘horizontal ice cores’. In this approach, he found that a transect of ice samples recovered along the ice-sheet surface could show the same ice-sheet history as an ice core drilled vertically into the ice sheet. 

One of Niels’ main contributions to Greenlandic society was playing a critical role in mapping Greenlandic glaciers. He served as Greenland Leader in the Global Land-Ice Measurement from Space international consortium, which produced the first complete map and inventory of all Greenlandic glaciers -- more than 20,000 glaciers -- from 1990s satellite imagery. 

The recommended glacier for Sermeq Niels Reeh is a land-terminating glacier in the very far north of Greenland. Based on Niels’ ice-age mapping approach, this is likely “the oldest” glacier in Greenland. The ice in this glacier is at least 35,000 years old, meaning it fell as snow before the Last Glacial Maximum. Virtually all other glaciers in Greenland now contain ice that fell as snow within the past 17,000 years.

Anker Weidick with his wife, Thale Marie Else Knudsen.

About Anker Weidick

Anker spent his entire career at GEUS. Between 1958 and 2012, he produced over 100 scientific reports on various aspects of Greenlandic glaciers and their changes since the end of the last ice age. Anker began at GEUS as a researcher in 1960, and served as Head of Department prior to his formal retirement in 1996. Anker continued to work throughout his retirement, until dying in 2020, at the age of 92, after a brief illness.

One of Anker’s main contributions to Greenlandic science was mapping present and historical ice margins around c. 35% of the ice sheet using aerial photographs and field investigations. The length changes of Greenlandic glaciers first documented by Anker have since become an important updating indicator of Greenland climate change.

One of Anker’s main contributions to Greenlandic society was providing the first systematic inventory of all ice sheet glacier names. He collected these glacier names from both historical maps and traditional knowledge. Anker learned Greenlandic from his wife, Thale Marie Else Knudsen. This first inventory provided a foundation for the glacier name inventories in use today. 

The recommended glacier for Sermeq Anker Weidick is a small land-terminating valley glacier in the very far south of Greenland. Anker collected historical maps and photographs of this specific glacier. It has a complex pattern of ice types and moraine positions which are textbook examples of the types of landscape features that he used throughout his career to reconstruct changes in ice area since the Little Ice Age. He was very active in field investigations in this region. 

Konrad Steffen

About Konrad Steffen

Konrad Steffen established a series of automatic weather stations on the ice sheet, beginning in 1990. While maintaining this network, he worked first at the University of Colorado and later at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research. Konrad collaborated with GEUS on ice-sheet fieldwork in the Paakitsoq area between 1993 and 2020. Konrad died in 2020, at the age of 68, in an ice-sheet accident while servicing ice-sheet weather stations near Ilulissat.

One of Konrad’s main contributions to Greenlandic science was documenting recent increases in air temperatures and ice-sheet melt rates due to climate change. These vital ice-sheet measurements are used by research groups around the world and have contributed to many research discoveries, including the observation that the ice sheet slides into the ocean faster during warmer summers.

One of Konrad’s main contributions to Greenlandic society was consistently highlighting the climate-change impacts confronting Greenland in the international media, and strongly advocating for political action to avoid dangerous climate change for future generations. Konrad’s work also used ice-sheet weather stations to understand the causes, and impacts, of extreme wind and flood events initiated on the ice sheet, e.g Piteraq.

The recommended glacier for Sermeq Konrad Steffen is a marine-terminating glacier in North Greenland. Since Konrad Steffen did research on both sea ice in the north, at the Pikialasorsuaq near Qaanaaq, and inland ice in the north, at Petermann Glacier, a glacier touching the sea in North Greenland provides a good tribute to his Greenland legacy.                

William Colgan
Senior Researcher
Glaciology and Climate

Location of the three new glacier names

About Greenlandic place names