Feb. 6, 2024

In Memoriam: Mario Giovinetto, Faculty of Arts

Former head of Department of Geography and Antarctic researcher; campus flag lowered Feb. 6, 2024
A black and white photo of a man wearing a winter coat and winter hat

The University of Calgary mourns the death of Dr. Mario Giovinetto, professor emeritus, geography,  who passed away in Fort Collins, Colo. on Jan. 6, 2024, at the age of 90. He is survived by his wife of 57 years, Lois Giovinetto, and their daughter, Anna Giovinetto.

Giovinetto had a distinguished career in the fields of physical geography, meteorology, glaciology and climatology. After receiving his PhD in 1968 from the University of Wisconsin, he taught for five years at UC Berkeley, after which he spent 25 years at the University of Calgary, including serving as head of the geography department. In the last 15 years of his career, he was contracted with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center where he made significant contributions to that institution’s study of the Antarctic ice sheet and the ICESat and ICESat-2 projects as a senior research scientist.

These achievements were preceded by at least a decade and a half of extraordinary experiences, many of which were connected to his early work as an Antarctic explorer. 

In the 1950s, while serving in the Argentine military, he collected samples from an isolated outcrop of rocks in the ocean between Argentina and Antarctica to support the then-somewhat-novel theory of continental drift. In keeping with the doctrine of discovery, Argentina subsequently claimed the rocks as its territory. 

Giovinetto was invited by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences to participate in both the 1956-57 and 1957-58 International Geophysical Years, and as a result he stayed in the Antarctic for 2½ straight years. In 1958, he and four other team members survived a hellacious 10-day storm that hit Camp Michigan on the Ross Ice Shelf. Sheltered by only tents that they had to hold down with their bodies, for days the men endured howling winds and freezing temperatures. Thanks to grit, determination, and a small miracle, they all made it.

During this time, Mario participated in the Marie Byrd Land Traverse led by Charles R. Bentley, which formally mapped the Sentinel Range. In recognition of this contribution to science, each member of the party had a mountain named after them, yielding Mount Giovinetto in February 1961. 

As later reported in the Calgary Herald, in 1960-61, Giovinetto participated in his longest traverse, which left the U.S. Navy airbase at McMurdo Sound on Dec. 10, 1960, and reached the South Pole Station, 2,350 kilometres (1,460 miles) away on Feb. 12, 1961. He and seven other researchers made the traverse in three 10-tonne diesel-powered Tucker Sno-Cats, in which they lived and which each towed 15-tonne trailers of supplies.

Prior to his work in the Antarctic, Giovinetto was an avid mountain climber. His family understands that he remains the youngest person to have scaled the most difficult face of Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Andes. In 1955, he and a fellow Argentinian climber set off for Kenya via ocean liner, where they proceeded to mount an expedition to Kilimanjaro — no mean feat in those days, making a 200-plus mile trek overland, bushwhacking through swamps and other challenging terrain. He also participated in several research expeditions in Greenland.

The University of Calgary offers deep thanks to Dr. Mario Giovinetto for the contributions he made to the university, his research field and the community at large. The flag on Swann Mall will be lowered to half mast on Feb. 6 — the date on the letter informing him Mount Giovinetto had been officially named after him — to pay tribute to his life.