Peter Wessel Birkeland died of natural causes in Boulder, Colorado on January 25, 2022, a snowy day befitting a lifelong skier. He was born in Seattle, Washington, on September 19, 1934, to Norwegian immigrant Ivar Wessel Birkeland and Marguerite Ellen O’Conner Birkeland of Rochester, Minnesota. He married Suzanne Franzke, also from Seattle, in August 1959. Pete and Sue’s unconditional love for each other never waned, and they were nearly inseparable for more than 60 years.
He grew up attending the greater Seattle school system, graduating from Bellevue High School. In 1958, he graduated from the University of Washington in Geology, and in 1961 he completed a Ph.D. in Geology from Stanford University. He served in the U.S. Army from 1953–1955, ending his service as a ski trooper in the Mountain and Cold Weather Training Command at Camp Hale in Colorado.
Pete’s professional career began as a professor at the University of California – Berkeley. In 1967, he took a position at the University of Colorado – Boulder, where he did research and taught in the combined fields of soils and geology until his retirement. Throughout his career, he traveled the western United States and the world with his wife and children studying soils in environments ranging from mountains to deserts to the tropics. He received several national awards for his research and teaching, and authored a successful introductory geology textbook, Putnam’s Geology, with his colleague Ed Larson. In addition, he authored three editions of a book on Soils Geomorphology, a subfield of Geology he helped pioneer. Pete’s proudest professional accomplishment was his mentoring and training of many successful students in this field. Those students went on to become both his colleagues and his cherished friends, and he stayed in touch with them long after he retired.
Pete was a lifelong skier, from the age of two to the age of 85. In high school he competed in all events (cross country, downhill, and ski jumping) in the Seattle ski league, which is where he first met Suzanne. He later raced for the U.S. Army at Camp Hale and for the University of Washington. The high point of his racing career was two NCAA silver medals in alpine skiing in 1956, one in the Downhill and one in the Alpine Combined (slalom and downhill combined). When the family moved to Colorado in 1967, they backcountry skied (on wooden cross-country skis) throughout the Front Range, and downhill skied at ski areas across the state almost every weekend.
Another thing Pete loved was riding his bike. He rarely used his car except to go to the mountains, and he enjoyed encouraging others to bike. He and Suzanne did numerous international bike trips with family and friends. These included using bikes to do geology fieldwork while traveling around the world in 1984-85, biking down the Danube River in 1994, and biking in the Spanish Pyrenees in 1996. In 2005, he and Suzanne and their friends biked in France and re-traced some of the classic stages of the Tour de France, an event he enjoyed watching on TV.
Not surprisingly, his retirement years involved geology, skiing, biking, and time in the mountains. He joined friends and former students to put on local geology field trips for national and international meetings, as well as for visiting students and professors. He volunteered for the Colorado Mountain Club, teaching backcountry skiing, making maps, and leading ski and hiking trips. When not skiing he enjoyed riding his bike and hiking in the mountains with Suzanne and their friends.
Though he had numerous professional and personal accomplishments, Pete’s biggest passion was for people. He made many lifetime friends, and he cherished and nurtured those friendships out on the trails and over a beer or two. His love for Sue lasted over 60 years and never waned. He was incredibly engaged and supportive of the directions his children chose in life. In his later years he especially enjoyed his time with his three grandchildren, including hiking and skiing with them, and loved to hear about their adventures. Another hobby he took up late in life was drawing. Dubbing himself “Petecasso”, he enjoyed drawing cubist-inspired pictures and humorous cartoons for family, friends, and neighbors.
He is survived by his wife Suzanne, son Karl (daughter-in-law Ginger and grandchildren Erika and Kelsey) of Bozeman, Montana, and daughter Robin (son-in-law John Jugl and grandchild Natasha) of Boulder. He was predeceased by his parents and his three siblings (Ivar “Buzzy” Birkeland, Jr., Sally Burklund, and Fred Birkeland). He loved his family greatly and was a wonderful husband, father, brother, and uncle. He relished his role as a grandfather and enjoyed engaging with his grandchildren on their level, whether that involved drawing funny pictures, joking around with them, being childish and goofy, and attending important events in their lives.
His final year of life was not an easy one, but he never complained. Pete took on the challenges of aging with grace and humility, and his innate inner kindness. He was visited frequently by his many friends and colleagues, who provided a great deal of support and love. We are particularly thankful for the kindness and care he received from everyone at hospice and from his caregivers. His children also would like to acknowledge the amazing support that he and Suzanne received during this time by their many friends and their incredible neighbors.
His primary concern later in life was for the future of our planet for his children, grandchildren, and all future generations. Contributions in his memory can be made to Earthjustice (earthjustice.org).
A memorial service will be held in Boulder at a later date when it is safe to gather, likely in late-spring or early-summer.