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Wallace Broecker: Scientists memorialize a titan of climate science

Posted on 12 March 2019 by Guest Author

This is a re-post from Yale Climate Connections by Bud Ward

Wallace BroekerWally Broecker, photographed around 2010 (Credit: Bruce Gilbert, via Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory)

The climate science community has lost one of the real titans of its field.

Geochemist Wallace Broecker – known as “Wally” – passed away February 18 in New York at age 87 of congestive heart failure.

A pioneer in identifying Earth’s warming as a result of human emissions of carbon dioxide, Broecker is widely credited with introducing in the 1970s the term “global warming.” A 1996 winner of the National Medal of Science, Broecker is credited also with being the first to identify (and name) the ocean conveyor belt.

At Columbia University – where he earned his B.A., M.A., and PhD degrees – Broecker was a stalwart of the renowned Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, LDEO.

In an insightful formal remembrance of Broecker, Columbia University Earth Institute Senior Science Writer Kevin Krajick, in his “Prophet of Climate Change” obituary, recalled a 1998 New York Times article. “My great joy in life comes in figuring something out,” Broecker told the newspaper. “I figure something out about every six months or so, and I write about it and encourage research on it, and that’s the joy of my life.”

Krajick captured the essence of Broecker in reporting:

Broecker, who suffered from dyslexia, never got around to learning how to type or use a personal computer. He wrote with a pencil and a notepad, and had staffers retype manuscripts and e-mails. He was known for his friendly demeanor, but also for his bluntness and volcanic temper; he publicly skewered grad students and senior scientists alike for sloppy work.

Yale Climate Connections asked several top climate scientists to share their memories of “Wally.” Their responses, capturing the technical excellence of his life’s work, are presented below in alphabetical order:

Richard B. Alley, Penn State University, University Park, Pa.:

“Wally was unique, and I doubt we’ll ever see another like him. He was voracious in learning what others knew, brilliant in putting their most important results together into a bigger picture, and generous in giving full credit to those collaborators. Then, he had the energy and intellectual confidence to raise the funding, recruit the students and postdocs and other researchers, and test the bigger picture, wherever and whenever it led. I believe he found joy in discovery. Whatever it is that causes other people to play computer games or solve Sudoku puzzles, Wally channeled to drive environmental science forward, to the benefit of all of us.”

Jeff Severinghaus, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego:

“Wally was the grandmaster at seeing what was important in the bewildering complexity of the Earth system, and coming up with what I call the 70 percent solution – a simple idea that explains about 70 percent of the phenomenon, without getting too distracted by the remaining 30 percent. He will be sorely missed.”

Richard Somerville, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego:

“Science is inherently self-correcting, and Wally Broecker enjoyed finding errors made by many scientists, including himself, as illustrated by his 2017 paper in Climatic Change, in which he points out that his famous 1975 paper in Science (the one with ‘global warming’ in the title) was simply wrong.

“Wally intensely disliked being called the ‘Father of Global Warming,’ writing that, ‘If there has to be such a person, it should be the late Charles David Keeling,’ and declaring, ‘It is my hope that the title Father of Global Warming does not appear on my tombstone. Were it to, I would be faced with a restless afterlife.'”

Lonnie G. Thompson and Ellen Mosley-Thompson, Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio:

“Although our early interactions were often tense given Wally’s misgivings about the value of tropical ice core records, in usual Wally fashion he changed course as their contributions became evident, and in 1995 he published a piece in Science acknowledging their value. Seeing the tropical ice core work gain the good opinion of such a brilliant and prominent scientist as Wally Broecker is a much-treasured accolade.”

John (Mike) Wallace, University of Washington, Seattle, Wa.:

“I greatly admired Wally for his ability to identify and articulate the big questions about the impacts of carbon emissions and to condense into sound bites the profundity of the human influence upon global climate.”

Warren Washington, National Center for Atmospheric Research, NCAR, Boulder, Co.:

“Wally had a gift of coming into a field of geoscience and making bold improvements in our understanding. He will be missed.”

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Comments 1 to 4:

  1. Off topic but related, interesting article on the role of ocean circulation in climate and carbon cycle feed-backs determining ice-age periodicity and the shift from 100,000 to 41,000 year cycles by Hasenfratz et al

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  2. Dated 08 Mar 2019

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  3. Sorry: [Edit @1] Shift to 100,000 from 41,000 year cycles

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  4. The Broecker led 1975 NAS/NSC report "Understanding Climatic Change; a Program for Action" was an important one that gets less mention than I think it should. As a counter to "scientists predicted cooling in the 1970's" arguments it is priceless - making it clear that the 70's science did not have sufficient quantitative understanding of climate processes to make such predictions and proposing a science program to turn that around. Which ultimately led to a soundly based conclusion that we don't have to worry about global cooling - although learning exactly why we need not worry about imminent global cooling was not nearly so reassuring as people had hoped. The government responses more closely followed the advice within that report - the current mainstream best available knowledge - and not the ice age alarmism that was principally a media creation. (Building on hype begun by existing nuclear winter stories?)

    Broecker's 1975 report also made clear that understanding how and to what extent human activities might affect the climate had already been a long running, if not yet so high priority, goal within existing science programs. Science programs that had, at that point, cross-partisan support.

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