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Waleed Abdalati


In the 2012 documentary Chasing Ice (produced by Boulder native Paula DuPré Pesmen), glaciers rapidly dissipate like mountainous suds in a bathtub. Known as calving, the filmmakers compare one such collapse in Greenland to the city of Manhattan folding in over itself and melting into the ocean. The dramatic footage is a ground-level view of the harrowing effects of climate change. But for Waleed Abdalati, the new director of CU Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), it’s an effect he’s observed for decades through a longer lens. It was also an occupation derived from “a collection of experiences.”

Abdalati, 49, became real hands on, measuring Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, as the deputy project scientist for NASA’s Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite (ICE-1), which provided elevation data of glaciers from 2003 to 2009. “In the early ’90s,” he says, “we knew ice was melting, but it wasn’t as dramatic as it is today.” ICE-1 and proceeding aerial flyovers measured how and where ice sheets grew and shrunk, “and what that meant for present and future sea level rise.”

Originally from New Hartford, New York, he worked at RCA Astro Electronics after college, engineering “Earth-observing satellites” in New Jersey. It was former CIRES director, and friend, Konrad Steffan that led to Abdalati’s “epiphany” to focus on research. While completing his doctorates at CU in 1996, he was shown pictures of the arctic sea ice. “It was really magical.”

“When I think back on my career, and the things that steered me, I never would’ve guessed one of the best things I did was high school theater.” Involved for all four years, as a senior, Abdalati played the role of Conrad in Bye Bye Birdie. “Whenever I speak to an audience of a thousand or an audience of one, some part of me goes back, and taps into that 17-year-old who’d sing on stage to his peers.”

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