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The passing of a climate giant, Tom Crowley

Posted on 15 May 2014 by John Abraham

With the frenetic studies of emerging climate science, we sometimes lose track of the creators of knowledge; the scientists who have helped shape our understanding of today’s Earth system. When one of them passes, it gives us a chance to reflect on these heroes of the world.

Recently, Dr. Tom Crowley died after a struggle with cancer. His personal and scientific impact was best conveyed to me by his dear friend, Dr. Jerry North. Dr. North told me,

Crowley’s amazing intellectual journey started with marine geology (PhD at Brown University) where he studied cores from the ocean floor. He became very expert in analysis of past climates with climate models. He was extraordinary at dealing with climate data sets where his intuition generated idea after idea. This very unusual instinct for crossing over all kinds of different data (tree rings, ocean cores, ice cores, pollen, etc.) and relating it to the climate signal that was buried in it made him a singularly gifted scientist. He had a talent for looking at a problem, thinking about it and wondering what kind of story could be made of it. What is a significant project leading to an interesting publishable paper and what is not: the very essence of a scientist.

What was remarkably about Crowley was his diverse and adaptive mind. He made significant contributions in a wide range of sub-disciplines. He was also an active contributor to public discussions of climate science. He excelled at telling the world why we should care.

In my communication with Jerry North, I learned much more about his friend. Tom and Jerry worked on paleoclimate problems years ago. They teamed up with colleagues John Mengel and David Short to develop energy-balance climate models that had the ability to explain important problems. Tom and Jerry used the model to examine all sorts of climate issues such as the importance of seasonal cycles in climate change.

They found that the summer climate controls the initiation of ice sheets. If the summer is cool, the ice will not melt and the sheet will become thicker. They also found that the placement of land and ocean water in the polar region was important in controlling the summer temperatures. North America and Greenland were ideal for ice-sheet growth. Their model showed that Greenland and Antarctica were predicted to ice over – that is, without human-emitted greenhouse gases.

Tom Crowley also co-authored an important climate science book on paleoclimatology which was published by Oxford Press in 1991. It was a clearly written and successful book that introduced climate models to geologists and geographers. It also introduced “climate modelers to the wonderful work of paleoclimate.”

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Comments 1 to 4:

  1. John and Dana, Thanks for helping people better understand the very important role that Tom played in building links between the palaeoclimate community and the climate modelling and modern climate communities. He was indeed a giant of a scientist, and it is by standing on the shoulders of giants that we can see and influence the future. Tom was also a gentle and welcoming giant, who cooked a mean steak on the barbecue. He will be missed!

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  2. All of us in paleoclimate will miss him.  I had wondered why had been relatively quiet over the last couple of years. 

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  3. Very sad. His visit to our institute some years ago was very stimulating and I hope other colleagues will be continuing to work with some of his ideas.

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  4. I honestly haven't heard of Tom Crowley before. However I'm learning now that the ice ages "trigger" theory (that I've attributed to David Archer and his "jumper" model), in fact comes from Tom... The comment@1 by David Karoly confirms my appreciation. We should do better job recognising those people on whose shoulders our science stands. Tom should have his place in the Interacive history of climate science button on the left.

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