Research Profiles

With Will Steffen, Earth system science has lost its father

Will Steffen presented the work beyond the Planetary Boundaries during a seminar to celebrate the concepts ten year anniversary in 2019. Photo: Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Centre director Line Gordon and chair of the board Carl Folke look back on their time with cherished colleague Will Steffen, who recently passed away

Will Steffen, a pioneering scientist and visionary human being, has passed away. With the loss of Will Steffen, it feels like the biosphere has lost some of its resilience.

Will leaves behind a legacy of exceptional research that has greatly impacted our understanding of the Anthropocene and the role of humanity within it. His ground-breaking work, which includes the great acceleration of the Anthropocene, the safe operating space for humanity, planetary stewardship, and the risk of a hothouse earth, has set the foundation for much of the work we do at the centre, and his research has already inspired several generations of centre scholars.

Will was not just a brilliant scientist but also a true diplomat of the scientific community, bridging gaps and fostering new partnerships among scholars from diverse disciplines. He was a kind and compassionate person who took the time to listen and share his insights and wisdom with all those he interacted with, regardless of their background or status.

Will has collaborated with several of us at the centre since the 1990s when he worked at the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme in Stockholm and is the father of Earth system science. His book ‘Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet under Pressure’, published in 2004, is a milestone.

Will's work will have a lasting imprint, and especially his humble personality, pleasant way of being, and great friendship will remain deeply in our hearts.

Meetings with Will were always invigorating, as he never lost sight of the big picture. He was extremely sharp and managed to capture complex aspects of Earth system behaviour into clear insights.

He loved the outdoors; you often heard him chatting with colleagues about the best rock-climbing routes, and saw him carrying his ice-skates around the corridors of the centre. He will be deeply missed by all who knew him, but his impact on the world will endure. We are many inspired by him, and we have a great responsibility to continue his important efforts to ensure a resilient biosphere where humanity can thrive.

Published: 2023-02-06