Introducing Martin Stuefer: The Austrian Geophysicist in Alaska

Bridges vol. 40, July 2014 / Spotlight

By Karolina Begusch Pfefferkorn

Geophysics is a field that integrates geology, mathematics, and physics in order to understand how the Earth works. But to Martin Stuefer, geophysics is about engaging a person in everything that makes life exciting: science, travel, and nature. Stuefer is an associate professor at the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks and he finds that geophysics provides endless opportunities to study nature. He shared his insights into working in Alaska with Bridges readers.

Martin Stuefer grew up in Innsbruck in the heart of the Alps and was always interested in the outdoors. At the age of 15, he enrolled in the local gliding club and received a sailplane license shortly after his 16th birthday. As a glider pilot, he observed the weather very closely and identified thermals along the mountains. One of his favorite childhood memories was of circling within a thermal and realizing that an eagle followed a few hundred feet below. He says, “It was my love for the outdoors and the different perspective while flying high over the mountains and glaciers which triggered my interest in meteorology and geophysics in general.” So, after completing high school, he decided to enroll at the University of Innsbruck and study at the Institute for Meteorology and Geophysics. Renowned scientists like Albert Defant (who did fundamental work on the physics of the atmosphere and is considered one of the founders of physical oceanography), Hans Ertel (theoretical hydrodynamics and turbulence in the atmosphere; geophysical hydrodynamics and Ertel's potential vorticity), and Herfried Hoinkes (a pioneer in glacial meteorology) influenced this program.

While working on his Ph.D., Stuefer was offered the unique opportunity to conduct fieldwork in Patagonia. His research on "Glacier Behavior on the Southern Patagonia Icefield" was based on spaceborne SAR images and field  measurements. “Within my graduate work I conducted and organized over 10 field trips to Moreno Glacier, which is a paradise on earth,” he says.

After completing his Ph.D. at the University of Innsbruck, Stuefer applied for a position as a postdoctoral fellow in Fairbanks, Alaska. “One of my professors stopped by in my office, telling me that he had heard about the perfect job for me; so I applied,” he remembers. Sheer curiosity to explore new places and the rumors of a highly competitive system inspired him to move to Alaska and take on the challenge. In 2001, he promised his family and friends to be back after one year at the latest. In 2014, he hasn’t yet had a good reason to leave.

New techniques to predict contrails 

In Alaska, Stuefer switched from researching ice on the ground – namely glaciers – to ice in the atmosphere. He started studying aircraft condensation trails (contrails) within a project funded by the US Air Force and developed new techniques to predict contrails, among them a so-called contrail layer calculator, which was introduced to the US Air Force Weather Agency.

The condensation trail research was a notable challenge that led him to follow-up projects involving numerical weather models and in situ observations. He enjoyed research that included field studies with a modeling component. Models allowed him to better understand his observations. “I equipped my airplane with high-tech air quality sensors and I am excited about opportunities to verify our modeling results over fires and active volcanoes,” he said, noting that Alaska was a perfect test bed for his work. The region along the Aleutians has the highest volcanic activity worldwide, and every summer the area encounters many wildfires that provide a rich testing ground for atmospheric research. Few data exist on in situ measurements of the smoke plumes above wildfires. Stuefer now investigates the many wildfires occurring every year in Alaska using modeling efforts and satellite remote sensing, as well as by penetrating the smoke plumes above fires at systematic altitudes and patterns with his particle- and infrared instruments mounted aboard his airplane.

Being in Alaska also helps Stuefer attract experts for collaboration. “There is a strong interest in the Arctic and the Alaskan environment. Scientists all over the world look at our research,” Stuefer said, “and the communication and learning from scientists in different fields is excellent.” Stationed in Alaska, he often collaborates with colleagues in Europe and Brazil. Usually he works with ecologists, volcanologists, and scientists in fire research, as well as with glaciologists and remote-sensing experts. He cooperates with the German Air and Space Center (DLR), and with Austrian colleagues on projects for implementing operational systems to mitigate extreme pollution hazards from volcanic eruptions or wildfires. Ongoing collaborative research is also focused on new techniques in airborne remote sensing of glaciers.

A typical week at the Geophysical Institute of the University of Alaska Fairbanks includes project work on the supercomputers of the Arctic Region Supercomputing Center, writing project reports, doing publication work, meeting with students and colleagues, and – what he doesn’t appreciate too much – a fair amount of administrative work. During spring semesters, Stuefer teaches aviation meteorology. Roughly every two months he travels to research sites along the Arctic coast in North Alaska, and he does airborne studies of natural phenomena such as forest fires.

Apart from research, Stuefer enjoys living in Alaska. “It is really beautiful if you like the outdoors and nature in general, and there is incredible freedom,” he says. He owns a bush plane with large tundra wheels, as well as skis for winter, which allows access to outstanding locations. He can travel on glaciers, riverbeds, or mountain ridges and explore new places on foot or with mountaineering skis. He thinks skiing in Alaska is one of the most fascinating experiences due to the openness of the landscapes.

More sophisticated prediction

When it comes to his most important findings, Stuefer highlights his contributions to glaciological observations performed under his Ph.D. supervisor Helmut Rott in Patagonia, studies that were unprecedented to date. “Over multiple years we managed to maintain a network of glaciological sites in Patagonia, which is characterized by adverse environmental conditions for field exploration. No multi-year continuous glaciological field studies were successful in this area before,” Stuefer says.

In addition, he has been instrumental in developing numerical modeling tools to predict aircraft contrails, ice fog, and wildfire emissions and to simulate the atmospheric pollution during volcanic eruptions. “There is a lot of interest in our volcanic eruption-numerical weather model application, since the coupled modeling systems are applicable worldwide,” Stuefer says, “especially after the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in Iceland, which interrupted air traffic over Europe for several days in spring 2011.” The Iceland eruption caused over €5 billion in revenue loss. Their modeling system permits a more sophisticated prediction of the path of the volcanic plume in the atmosphere downwind from an eruption. For all those efforts, Stuefer successfully engaged leading atmospheric modelers as collaborators.

Stuefer believes that strong observational inaccuracies exist to date, especially in the measurements of precipitation in windy regions, as well as measurements of atmospheric humidity in cold environments. Standard high altitude balloon-borne radiosonde measurements have a strong humidity (dry) bias, and scientists need to get better observations. New expensive humidity sensors – so-called Cryogenic Frostpoint Hygrometer (CFH) sensors – have been developed in recent years, and Stuefer works to implement balloon-borne CFH measurements as routine measurements in the central US in Oklahoma. 

Currently, he is also working on a system to predict extreme air pollution events in nearly real time. As an investigator in the US Department of Energy Atmospheric Radiation Measurements program, he conducts high quality measurements of atmospheric humidity in the upper atmosphere within a global reference network. “I strive to do detailed quality observations in the future, and improve model performance consequently,” he says. 

Stuefer considers his science topics highly appreciated, and not only because of the attention paid nowadays to climate change. He is part of a team managing large amounts of data within the Alaska Climate Research Center. The data are important to verify climate models that have direct impact on the public as well as on industries. 

Currently, the “careless wastage” of the environment and depletion of natural resources worry him. Nevertheless, he is convinced that scientists have to be careful with predictions about nature. In his opinion, it is not appropriate to forecast the temperature change due to increased CO2 concentrations at a certain location for the next 100 years with an accuracy of tenths of degrees. He thinks public engagement could be better focused if the average person worked more closely with science, and hopes this would lead to better understanding of how nature works. People need to understand that “everything is coupled and typically not one single phenomenon is causing an effect in nature, but a chain of phenomena,” he says. 


Stuefer, Martin (1999). "Investigations on mass balance and dynamics of Moreno Glacier based on field measurements and satellite imagery." Dissertation. Leopold-Franzens-Universität, Innsbruck.  

Stuefer, M., Rott, H., and Skvarca, P. (2007). "Glaciar Perito Moreno, Patagonia: climate sensitivities and glacier characteristics preceding the 2003/04 and 2005/06 damming events." J. Glaciol. 53:3-16.

Stuefer, M., Freitas, S.R., Grell, G., Webley, P., Peckham, S., McKeen, S.A., and Egan, S.D. (2013). "Inclusion of ash and SO2 emissions from volcanic eruptions in WRF-Chem: development and some applications." Geosci. Model Dev. 6:457–468.