Obituary for Dietrich Barsch by Olaf Bubenzer, Bernhard Eitel and Wilfried Haeberli

Dietrich Barsch died on 23 May 2018, shortly before his 82nd birthday.  Born in Erfurt, Germany, Dietrich Barsch established the basis for his scientific career with studies in Geography, Mathematics, Philosophy and Geology at the Universities of Kiel and Bonn, Germany. After having obtained his PhD in 1962 at the University of Bonn, he moved to the University of Basel, Switzerland, where he achieved his habilitation in 1968.  Following intermittent research stays in Baton Rouge and Tempe (USA) he became professor at the University of Kiel in 1972 and in 1974 resumed the chair of Geography at the University of Heidelberg, Germany until his retirement from active service on 30 October 1998 for sudden health problems.

Dietrich Barsch was a highly dynamic scientist with extraordinary charisma. He had a remarkable ability to shape his scientific surrounding and to inspire his scholars. His greatest passion was devoted to cold mountains  (Alps, Andes, Scandinavia) and the Antarctic. A milestone in the history of high-mountain geomorphology was the introduction and application of precise field measurements such as drilling, geophysics or photogrammetry as part of his advanced studies on cohesive creep and viscous flow of ice-rich permafrost, the so-called rock glaciers. He thereby became one of the promoters of modern geomorphological research considering – based on focused field experiments – material properties, physical/chemical conditions, processes, space and time as elements to understand complex land-forming processes. His early work in this domain indeed triggered a spectacular and continued expansion and progress in permafrost and rock glacier research among the younger generations. He also initiated the Priority Programme of the German Research Foundation (DFG) on Geomorphological Mapping in the Federal Republic of Germany (1976-1984) and contributed essentially to the DFG-Priority Programme on Fluvial Geomorphodynamics in the Younger Quaternary. In parallel to such work, Dietrich Barsch and his research team carried out numerous application-oriented studies, for instance about decentralised flood protection and various hydrological questions in the wider surroundings of Heidelberg. This spectrum made him one of nationally as well as internationally most widely recognized representative not only of Geomorphology but also of Geoecology. A reflection of this is the title of his seminal book “Rock-glaciers. Indicators for the Present and Former Geoecology in High Mountain Environments”.

At national as well as international level, Dietrich Barsch was an excellent networker. He assumed the functions of the chair of the German Working Group for Geomorphology (1986-1990), chair of the German Society of Geography (1989-1991) and chair of the International Association of Geomorphologists (1993-1997). He also served the University of Heidelberg as Dean of the Faculty of Geosciences and as chair of the University Governing Board. He was repeatedly honoured for his performances. In 2005 the Ferdinand-von-Richthofen Medal was awarded to him in view of his outstanding merits for research in geomorphology. This put him in a row with famous scientists of the 20th century like Sven Hedin or Erich von Drygalsky. Beyond his unexpected health-induced end of active research and teaching he kept an uninterrupted interest in the development of physical geography.  The memory of his innovative and stimulating personality will accompany us.

Olaf Bubenzer and Bernhard Eitel, Heidelberg; Wilfried Haeberli, Zürich