By James Balog
A dear friend of mine, and of the Extreme Ice Survey, passed away this past Friday, January 9, 2015. Dr. Alberto Behar, a researcher affiliated with both the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, CA and Arizona State University, was a specialist in conceiving, building and deploying exotic electronic instruments in difficult places. Mars, Antarctica, Greenland—they were all home turf for Alberto’s intellect and imagination.
In the early days of time-lapse camera development for the Extreme Ice Survey, the electronic problems seemed endless. I was solving them by trial and error in the basement of my house. A mutual friend introduced Alberto to me. By phone, he talked me through some of the technical problems. A major problem with the camera timers, or intervalometers, remained. For no apparent reason, they would work most of the time—and then not work at all. Maddening, frustrating…it brought me to my psychological knees, as shown in “Chasing Ice.” But logistics, funding and personnel were all set, so four of us went to Greenland anyway to deploy 11 of the cameras. Anxiety about the erratic behavior of the timers remained. We set up camp at the top of a 1000-foot-high granite wall in a fjord known as Sermeq Avanarleq, east of Ilulissat on the west central coast.
Alberto was a great companion for camping, hiking and just generally hanging around. His intelligence and megawatt smile lit up many a conversation. But that bug in the timers showed its ugly face immediately. I had no clue about what to do; I could only hope that if we deployed the cameras, most of them would work, as they had been back on my test bench in Colorado. Alberto, a whiz at electronics, decided to simply disassemble the circuit boards. I would never have done that…the boards were just the typical mish-mash of little electronic dohickeys, and I had no idea what they did. To Alberto, though, they were home territory. In half an hour, he found the problem: the manufacturer had used a piece of double-stick tape to hold down the LED screens that gave our readings. The tape would sometimes dry out if the humidity in the air declined to a certain point, the LED screens would lift off their copper contact pins, and we would suddenly get no reading, giving us the illusion that the entire units were broken. In fact, they weren’t. I was able to breathe again, thanks to Alberto. He also consulted on our redesign of the timers the following winter. His careful analysis opened the door to letting the Extreme Ice Survey go forward and collect a monumental record of how climate change is re-shaping our world. Our million-plus image archive is in no small part a result of Alberto’s experience and skill.
Alberto passed away when a small plane he was piloting crashed on takeoff from the Van Nuys, CA airport. Initial indications are that the aircraft stalled. It came down—soundlessly, according to witnesses, so the engine must have failed—right in the middle of a busy urban intersection, crowded with people, cars, buses, an apartment building, stores and power lines. No one but Alberto was hurt. The reason? I suspect that in Alberto’s final heroic seconds of life, he made sure that the airplane landed in a safe spot.
I am terribly upset at Alberto’s passing, and grieve for his beautiful wife, Mary, and their children, Indra, Isis and Athena. His spirit is with them, but all of us who work on the Greenland Ice Sheet are sure to catch a glimpse of his bright smile up there, in the empty skies, too.
May he rest in peace. – JB
Additional Tributes to Alberto from:
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory – “JPL Scientist Alberto Behar Remembered”
NY Times’ Andy Revkin’s Dot Earth – “Too Soon Gone: Alberto Behar, Who Used Robots and Rubber Ducks to Probe Icy Secrets”
Arizona State University – “Celebrating the life of Professor Alberto Behar“