Foundation spurs a legacy of pioneering research

by Megan Taylor Morrison
Oct 11, 2011


Courtesy of the Comer Science and Education Foundation.

Gary Comer on the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, in 2002. 


Photo by Philip Conkling. Courtesy of the Comer Science and Education Foundation.


Leading climate change scientists joined Gary Comer (red jacket) on his yacht the Turmoil for a research trip to Greenland in 2005. From left, George Denton of the University of Maine, Richard Alley of Pennylvania State University, Philip Conkling of the Island Institute, Comer and Wallace Broecker of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. 


Abigail Foerstner/MEDILL

Montserrat Alonso-Garia prepares for her presentation at the Comer Conference

Comer farm trees

Megan Taylor Morrison/MEDILL

A forest view from the Comer complex where climate scientists gather for a major conference every year.

Even in a dimly lit library, sitting at a dark wood table, geophysicist Wally Broecker’s passion for the science behind climate change illuminates the room. He carries his points with sporadic pounds on the table.

But when he talks about his friend, entrepreneur and philanthropist Gary Comer, Broecker’s demeanor softens.

“Gary did a very clever thing,” Broecker said. “He adopted a small community of scientists and he got heavily involved. It’s an ideal thing for a billionaire to do.”

And it is directing the course of climate change research on many fronts as scientists urgently piece together the past to understand where faster-paced climate change, driven by humanity, is headed.

Broecker, Columbia University's pioneer of climate change science, first met Comer when the philanthropist tracked him down at his lab in 2001. Comer knew the planet was warming after a nearly ice-free sail through the legendary Northwest Passage. When Comer researched the problem, he noticed Broecker’s name kept showing up in journals.

Today, Broecker is helping to back young researchers with Comer funding and lead the Comer Conference on abrupt climate change, legacies of Gary Comer who died of prostate cancer in 2006. Broecker’s partners are two other innovative scientists: Richard Alley, a professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University and George Denton, a professor in the department of earth sciences at the University of Maine.

Broecker believes that Comer would have been pleased with the foundation and the scientists’ work since his death.
“I would hope he would be very, very happy about it,” Broecker said, detailing some of the most recent and significant accomplishments as the Comer Foundation continues to find and support the coming generation of climate scientists.

The stakes are high. The scientists’ work is a special piece of humanity’s survival, Alley said.

“Ignoring climate, ignoring science is a way to kill people, ultimately,” he said. “Doing good science the right way and getting it into the public’s eye is not just fun, it really is how our civilization’s going to do and how well we’re going to get along.”
Beryllium-10 dating

Top on Broecker’s list is the foundation’s support of researchers refining a dating technique that helps scientists to understand past and present climates.

“Clearly the most important is the development of the beryllium-10 dating and its application to dating moraines,” Broecker said.

The dating has allowed scientists to get more accurate dates for sediment and therefore to better understand the timeline for important events in the past, such as the recession and advance of glaciers and how these events compare in different parts of the world.

To refine a method like beryllium-10 would normally take years and funding would be difficult to fund, said Jeff Severinghaus, a professor of geosciences at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

“It took a huge burst of concentrated effort and it’s hard to get that sort of thing funded by the National Science Foundation,” said Severinghaus, who cited the “two years in a lab with painstakingly slow experiments” required to refine the method. “Comer money has allowed precision dating which gives a much sharper picture of when the planet warmed.”

Beryllium-10 is an isotope formed in quartz-rich rocks, when cosmic rays hit earth’s surface. The longer rock is exposed, the more beryllium-10 builds up. In the case of bedrock covered by a glacier, the formation of beryllium-10 begins when the glacier recedes. Measurements of beryllium-10 can therefore show scientists how long a piece of bedrock has been exposed or, in other words, the date at which a glacier receded.             

The extent to which the technique has improved is also notable, said Toby Koffman, a graduate research assistant at the University of Maine Climate Change Institute.

“The method has made an order of magnitude improvement in the last 10 years thanks to the Comer foundation,” Koffman said. In other words, the method is 10 times more precise than it was before.
Seeding new research

Jorge Strelin, an Argentinian staff geologist at the Antarctic Institute, used Comer funding to conduct research he could not otherwise have performed.

“In our country, science is not taken so importantly,” Strelin said. Strelin uses a mass spectrometer to analyze samples he retrieves from “deep in the mountains.”

“It’s a very expensive method that only here in the U.S. or Europe could be financed because there are some measurements that have to be made in special laboratories,” he said.

Strelin’s research focuses on glacier fluctuation in Patagonia and Lago Argentina. His objective is to try to correlate climate change between areas in Antarctica and Argentina.

The Comer seed money allowed him and other scientists to generate the seminal research results necessary to quality for the National Science Foundation grants.

“We only got this grant because of previous work and results,” Strelin said. Across the world in Greenland, Comer funding also helped get projects off the ground. Jeff Severinhaus, a professor of geosciences at the Scripps Institute for Oceanography, said that Comer startup was critical for his work.

“It really helped me get going on ambitious and difficult projects with the National Science Foundation,” he said. “They’d rather fund a project that has been shown to be feasible.”
The Comer funding allowed Severinghaus to try new methods with his post docs, such as using gases as a thermometer to figure out temperatures in Greenland.

The ability for researchers to use Comer money as seed money was what Comer wanted, Broecker said.

“What Gary envisioned is actually happening: that this would be startup money. Then people could write proposals to the National Science Foundation and other places and get bigger funding,” Broecker said.

By making an initial investment on groundbreaking projects, the Comer Foundation influences the direction of public funding for research, Koffman said.

“Government money is now following the smart money, which is Comer money,” he said.

Supporting young researchers

Several up-and-coming scientists made their debut at the Comer Conference this year, including Koffman and Montserrat Alonso-Garcia, a post doc at the University of South Florida. For these young scientists, the conference is a unique opportunity to focus on their interests and network with some of the brightest minds in climate science.

“I feel like a little child with many important people,” Alonso-Garcia said. “When I started to work, I read the articles of these important people. You know this person, but now you are meeting them.”

Comer funding comprises 50 percent of Alonso-Garcia’s research on the relationship between climate variability and solar radiation. Her research is an effort to predict future climate variability based on past trends.

Both Alonso-Garcia and Koffman commented on the “very focused” nature of the conference.

“The conference has the highest concentration of really gifted climate change scientists at any meeting.” Koffman said, he added that it’s an opportunity for him to focus on climate change, his “primary interest.”

The Comer Foundation is paying for Koffman to work and stay at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, where he processes samples from his research in the Gary C. Comer Geochemistry Building.

Broecker said he expects these young researchers will help shape the future of climate science.

“We have supported some superb young people who will go on and do great things,” Broecker said.

Steve Barker, a senior lecturer at Cardiff University in Wales, received his first Comer funding in 2004 and, by 2009, was handpicked by Broecker to attend a smaller, inner-circle meeting to discuss questions that need to be answered about climate and how research might fill in the puzzle. This year, they debated the topic of how ice ages begin.

"Funding from Comer meant that I was part of this family,” Barker said. A family, he explained, in which “everyone is into abrupt climate change.”

Hydrology program

The recent hydrology research looks at the critical need to model and manage water resources in a warming world.

Boyle, an associate professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, presented modeling results related to the change in size of closed-basin lake systems in the United States’ Great Basin, specifically in lakes in California and Nevada.

The information and the techniques Boyle used are critical to understanding changes in precipitation in the past and the threat of drought today.

“We know they had more rainfall but how much more? Doug is showing how to go about doing that,” Broecker said.

Boyle said he is the most recent addition to the hydrology group, which includes 15 other scientists.

Boyle met Broecker in October 2009, at an international symposium. Broecker approached Boyle about a hydrological model the young scientist had created for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation under the Terminal Lakes Program to determine how much water the mountains and rivers would provide to lakes that year.

“He asked me if my models could be used to simulate the climatic conditions on the order of 10 – 20,000 years ago,” Boyle said, “I said, ‘I don’t’ see why not.’”

With Broecker's encouragement, Boyle’s career changed dramatically. He transitioned from his work at the Desert Research Institute and as director of the Nevada Water Resources Research Institute to a job directly involving his modeling of past hydrologic changes with the University of Nevada, Reno. Last year at the Comer Conference, Boyle introduced the concept of using his models to directly study lakes of the past.

This year, Boyle presented his preliminary results.

In the coming years, Boyle said he and the other researchers are “posing” to do additional work in new areas, such as in Asia and South America.

He called the hydrology team a “critical part” of the effort to understand climate change.

“I think this really moves the science forward rapidly, much quicker than certainly any type of government-sponsored program might,” Boyle said.

Like the research on Beryllium-10, funding from the Comer Foundation has made it possible to explore concepts of hydrology quickly, Severinghaus said.

“It allowed a very focused and intense burst of research on the question of how rainfall changes when climate changes,” he said. “We see from past records that small temperature changes can mean big rainfall changes.”

Mentors foster the next generation of scientists

On a more personal level for Broecker, he said he believes his involvement with the foundation and with Comer encouraged him and George Denton to continue their work.

“Gary picked us up and said, ‘Hey, you could do a lot more if you kept going,’ and both of us did,” Broecker said. “I’m 80, my god, I should be on a farm somewhere, but I’m still teaching.”

For many scientists, Broecker’s presence has been essential in their learning process.

“To work with Wally, it’s a real honor,” Barker said. “It teaches you to step outside the box. If you aren’t willing, he stretches you.”

Beyond ideas, the connections that Broecker presents and the feedback that he and his colleagues provide are invaluable, Boyle said.

In a recent trip to the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Broecker introduced Boyle to people he never otherwise would have known.

“These scientists are fairly isolated and for a person like me to actually be able to talk to one on the phone is next to impossible,” Boyle said. “Now I’m able to interact with them on an in-person basis.”

Receiving personal attention from the three climate change gurus is also a rare opportunity, Boyle said.

“There’s no way I would have ever imagined that I would have gotten 22 minutes of undivided attention from Wally Broecker, George Denton, Richard Alley and all of the other people in that room, and then afterward be able to get feedback from them,” Boyle said. “It’s a pretty amazing thing.”

A final message

As the conference drew to a close Tuesday night, Stephanie Comer added her thoughts.

“I’m so impressed with everything you’ve done,” she said, “It’s incredible. My dad died about five years ago and he would be so honored and proud to help you with everything that you’re doing.”

Alley was the last to take the stage. With one hand in his pocket and the other on the microphone, he began.

“You know, as hunter-gatherers, there would be a few million of us alive in the world,” he said. “Because of what we figured out how to do, there’s a few billion of us and we’re going to make it 10 [billion] and we’re going to make it.”

The scientists were on their way to fulfilling the prophecy of Gary Comer, whose words Alley reiterated: “We’re not going to outspend Washington, we’re going to outthink Washington,” Comer had said.

Although the scientists haven’t “totally won yet,” according to Alley, they are making progress.

“When you go back, just remember that,” Alley said. “We’re going the right way.”