Obituary – Steve Solomon

Steven Mark Solomon

In the early hours of August 20, 2011, the Arctic science community lost Steve Solomon, a valued colleague, an inspired and passionate northern scientist, and a dear friend to many in the circumpolar world. After an eclectic and varied early career (as lab tech, bicycle courier, farmer, maple-syrup producer, salmon fisherman, mud-logger, lecturer and exploration geologist, among other pursuits nowhere near the Arctic), Steve Solomon joined the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) in 1991 as an Arctic coastal specialist, based at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Hired to focus on hazards to development in the Mackenzie Delta region, Steve embraced the Arctic and its scientific challenges. A person of great integrity and generosity, he shared his data and rapidly expanding understanding of Arctic coastal processes with a host of contacts in the federal and territorial governments, industry, universities, the media, the international polar science community, and especially with residents of the Inuvialuit Settlement Region. He visited all six Inuvialuit communities on a number of occasions, was a frequent temporary resident of Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk and a well-known figure throughout the region. Over the 20 years since he began his northern career, Steve made an indelible impression on Arctic science, through his own research efforts and his mentoring, inspiration, and sharing of wisdom across a wide network of colleagues, partners, and friends in Canada and around the world.

Steve grew up in Hartsdale, New York, a short drive north of the city. In 1972, he graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont and somewhere along the way became a master cook. Steve went into the oil patch and earned his stripes as a mud-logger in Montana and western Canada, where met his partner and spouse Sarah-Marie Loupe. Later they moved to St. John’s, Newfoundland, and in 1986 Steve completed his M.Sc. at Memorial University on the sedimentology and fossil-fuel potential of Upper Carboniferous rocks in western Newfoundland. He was subsequently employed at the Centre for Cold Ocean Resources Engineering (C-CORE) on the Memorial University campus and became involved in marine placer gold exploration in Newfoundland coastal waters in partnership with the GSC

Since we came to know him in the GSC, Steve has been a core member of our team, in many ways a leader, always open to new ideas and technologies, always asking questions others didn’t think to ask, always thinking ahead, always organized no matter how disorganized his office. The focus of Steve’s career was in the western Arctic but he made important contributions in other areas as well. In the mid-1990s, the GSC established a Memorandum of Understanding with SOPAC (the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission, as it was known at the time), a regional organization based in Suva, Fiji. The GSC undertook to provide staff on short-term assignments and Steve was the first to go, initially on a short project in Apia, Samoa. A couple of years later, in 1996, Steve followed Don Forbes on a 12-month secondment and the family moved to Fiji. The work involved challenging projects such as a study of lagoon circulation and habitat enhancement for black pearls in the remote Northern Cook Islands atoll of Manihiki, where Steve’s remote-area logistics experience from the Arctic was highly relevant. His natural skill in networking and diplomacy also came to the fore in early projects on coastal vulnerability to climate change in Kiribati and Fiji.

After his return from the South Pacific, Steve was recruited to lend his marine geological skills to contaminant clean-up at northern radar sites in the Eastern Arctic and Labrador. He spent many weeks over five years working in remote Saglek Fjord, a spectacularly beautiful part of the country, but challenging for work from a small fishing boat, including mapping, coring, and oceanographic instrument deployments. No doubt Steve’s old Oregon fishing skills played a part in the success of this program. It was about this time that Steve also began to play a leading international role, co-chairing with Jerry Brown in 1999 the first of a series of circumpolar workshops on Arctic Coastal Dynamics (ACD). Steve was a leading figure in the ACD project, sponsored by the International Arctic Science Committee and the International Permafrost Association, and played a large role in the Coastal Working Group for the Second International Conference on Arctic Research Planning in 2005. He was also a contributor to the Arctic Climate Impacts Assessment report published the same year. The vision of a circumpolar digital coastal map that Steve helped to promote in 1999 came to fruition and was published in 2011.

Over the years, Steve was always experimenting with innovative and unusual survey vehicles and other scientific equipment. Examples include a prototype articulated amphibious vehicle (Arktos-β) in 1991 on the outer Mackenzie Delta and a hovercraft in 2003 on the Fraser Delta near Vancouver. While the Arktos-β experiment was not repeated, it demonstrated from his very first Arctic field season that Steve was always thinking about new ways to collect elusive data. He was a pioneer in the acquisition and application of portable small-boat survey systems including shallow-water multibeam bathymetry and interferometric sidescan sonar. Steve was an innovator in the application of emerging airborne and satellite imaging systems, including laser altimetry, synthetic aperture radar (SAR), and high resolution optical imagery and he pioneered the development of digital photogrammetry for coastal change mapping in the GSC. Steve Solomon demonstrated the use of SAR imagery to map the extent of bottomfast ice in the Mackenzie Delta and the utility of this information for mapping shallow bathymetry in turbid delta-front waters, understanding pre-breakup spring discharge routing in the outer delta, enabling the use of vibroseis systems over bottomfast ice to limit the need for drilling and explosives in seismic exploration programs, and identifying deeper channels for summer navigation in the delta. With colleagues he was also the first to confirm the occurrence of strudel drainage of over-ice flood waters and associated seabed scour near the margins of bottomfast ice off the Mackenzie Delta front. Steve was a valued partner in numerous formal and informal research partnerships in the Delta region and the acknowledged expert on coastal stability in the vicinity of Tuktoyaktuk, a community built on coastal terrain underlain by very high proportions of excess and massive ground ice.

Steve was the consummate field geologist, at home in a rough camp, small boat, or helicopter. In camps, whether out in the field or at a base in Inuvik, he whipped up fantastic curries, soups, and stews. In winter field programs in the Mackenzie Delta, he persevered under the most arduous conditions, in temperatures down to -40°C with wind chill, inspiring confidence and focusing on the task. To put down current meters under thick Arctic ice, he wielded a power drill or a custom monster ice saw. Steve’s field notes are legendary. They record everything. To quote one example from August 2005 –“Turned around bad weather @ 1900, arrived at abandoned shack @ 2000. Dinner pepperoni, sandwich and tea, sleep sitting up, bear paw prints on bed spread.”

Steve was a great scientist of international stature. His intelligence, creativity, and enthusiasm shone through. His perseverance and work ethic were remarkable. Above all, his honesty, integrity and generosity were fundamental to his character. The grace with which he faced his illness and discouraging prognosis over many months was extraordinary. He was always thinking of how to make things easier for everyone else. This essential humanity, which touched so many, is his true legacy. Steve Solomon leaves a huge hole among us in the marine science and Arctic research communities. Besides Sarah-Marie, he also leaves his son Reuben and Reuben’s fiancée Melanie. The boat they built together with him during the months of his illness is a work of art and a floating memorial.

Don Forbes