Shi Yafeng, 1919-2011

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Shi Yafeng, an honorary IGS member, has died at the age of 93

3 March 2011

Honorary member of the International Glaciological Society, Academician Shi Yafeng, passed away in Nanjing, China, on 13 February 2011. Professor Shi was an initiator of glaciology in China, opening the Chinese glaciological community up to the outside world. He gave foreign scientists the opportunity to work with Chinese glaciologists on a number of glaciers in China.

Professor Shi was born on 21 March 1919, and graduated from the Department of History and Geography, Zhejiang University, China. He was awarded his MSc degree from the same university in 1944. After several junior academic positions, Shi Yafeng became director in charge of the Research Section of Glaciology and Geocryology of the Institute of Geography at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in 1958. He initiated and headed scientific expeditions to the Qilain Shans, Tien Shan, Karakorum and Himalayas. These investigations not only became the starting point of Chinese glaciology but also made indispensable contributions to the knowledge of glaciology in the interior region of the Eurasian continent. His scientific contributions during this period covered not only glaciers but also a much broader area including avalanches, permafrost and mud-debris flow. These investigations made a valuable contribution to the planning of the fresh water supply and the prevention of snow and ice disasters.

During the cultural revolution he was removed from his position, separated from his family and sentenced to manual labour, including 2 years of street construction. Talking about these years later he was obviously angry about what happened to his country, but never showed resentment against the individuals who caused his personal hardship.

In mid-1970s, when the Gang of Four was expelled from power, and China resumed relations with the outside world, Shi Yafeng became the director of the newly re-organized Institute of Glaciology, Cryopedology and Desert at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Professor Shi’s pioneering efforts to become part of the international glaciological community led the way in Chinese science. He started the internationalization of Chinese glaciology in 1978 by visiting centres of glaciological research.

In June 1978 Professor Shi arrived in Zurich with four younger glaciologists. After a day’s excursion on the LGM and the subsequent retreat stages of the Linth Glacier, organized and led by Fritz Müller specially for the group, Fritz, then my graduate supervisor, made me responsible for guiding the group to glaciologically important places in the Alps, ending at Rieder Alp beside the Aletschgletscher, where the first international workshop on glacier inventory was held. This workshop was the first opportunity for the international community to hear about the recent status of glaciers in China.

Two years later Shi Yafeng was again travelling the world with a concrete plan for advancing glaciology in China, with the aim of organizing postgraduate studies abroad for senior Chinese students. It was obvious that Professor Shi thought the completion of the Chinese and the world glacier inventories was very important for Chinese glaciology and also for his institute. He considered the glacier inventory to be a useful introduction to the discipline of glaciology for young scientists in China.

I had once again the good fortune to share several days with the group and to get to know this elegantly polished old (so he appeared to me then) scientist, who had the far-sighted perspective to lead Chinese glaciology for the coming decades. He combined scientific drive with political diplomacy, and his initial research was to stress the importance of glaciers as fresh water resources for the interior region of China. In 1980 Professor Shi was nominated an Academician, the highest honour in Chinese academia.

Through his well-thought-out plan, a number of scientists of the following generation, both in China and abroad, got the chance to participate in glaciological research projects in China. This was a tremendous opportunity for scientists outside China to become acquainted with continental-type glaciers and their Quaternary development. Shi Yafeng published more than 200 scientific papers and edited more than 20 professional monographs as a chief editor. His monographs, Quaternary Glaciations and Environmental Variations in China (2005) and Abridged Illustration of Chinese Glacier Inventory (2005, published in 2008 in English with the title Concise Glacier Inventory of China), are two important works in the international glaciological community and are the key to Quaternary science and glaciology in China. The latter work in reality is not just an inventory, as the modest title might indicate, but a high-level scientific presentation of important aspects of glaciers from all glacierized regions of China, and has recently been reviewed in the Journal of Glaciology by Professor Mark Meier.

All of us will miss this enlightening and generous scientist, who had a very colourful life.

Atsumu Ohmura, on behalf of the IGS Council

For a more extensive Obituary for Shi Yafeng, please go the ICE 155, 2011, pp16-17