Climate science pioneer Wallace Broecker memorialized at namesake symposium

Climate science pioneer Wallace Broecker memorialized at namesake symposium

By Zack Fishman, Dec. 18, 2019

The locked office of the late climate scientist Wallace “Wally” Broecker displays a wooden ship’s wheel, mounted on a window-paneled wall behind his former desk. The wheel overlooks the forested campus of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, where Broecker conducted research for nearly 70 years. It originated from one of LDEO’s first vessels used for ocean chemistry testing in the 1960s, and the choice of its current home is no accident: The captain’s wheel is symbolic of Broecker’s leadership at the institution, says paleoclimatologist and LDEO professor Jerry McManus.

Office with desk, ship's wheel and large window
Wallace Broecker’s former office is on the second floor of the Gary C. Comer Geochemistry Building in Palisades, New York. LDEO administration hopes to re-open its doors for continued use while preserving Broecker’s memory, although it has not yet come to a decision. (Zack Fishman/MEDILL)

Broecker, who died in February at the age of 87, made significant contributions to the scientific understanding of the oceans, climate and climate change during his long academic career, mentoring several generations of students. Born in Oak Park in 1931 as the second of five children, he received his Ph.D. in geology at Columbia and became an assistant professor there in 1959. Since then, he pioneered the use of carbon isotopes and trace compounds to date and map the oceans, as well as introducing the concept of a “global conveyor” that connects the world’s oceans through heat-driven circulation. Broecker also popularized the phrase “global warming” in a 1975 paper and has been deemed the “grandfather of climate science” by many in the field.

More than 200 researchers and family members celebrated his legacy at the Wally Broecker Symposium in late October, with many of the world’s leading earth scientists in attendance. McManus led the organization of the three-day conference, which took place on the LDEO campus, an hour’s drive north of Columbia’s main campus in Manhattan. Dozens of Broecker’s former students and colleagues presented new research based on his findings, as well as heartfelt and entertaining stories about the late scientist.

Princeton geoscientist Michael Bender opened the symposium with a summary of Broecker’s decades-long career, which he said spanned dozens of research topics and many ambitious experiments. Bender said Broecker first visited LDEO for a summer job in a lab and he learned about the new technology of radiocarbon dating, or measuring isotopes of carbon to determine the age of materials. Broecker’s supervisor was impressed enough to arrange the young scientist’s transfer to Columbia from Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, for his senior year and asked the 22-year-old to take over the lab.

An innovative Broecker would go on to use radiocarbon dating in 1958 to measure how glaciers affected the depth of a prehistoric lake in Utah. He also pioneered the use of tracking radioactive particles to study circulation in bodies of water, as he did in the 1980s when he poured radium into lakes in Ontario, Canada — with governmental permission — to follow its motion.

“I tried to look at Wally’s work as a whole, and the scope is just completely overwhelming,” said Bender, one of Broecker’s former students. “We were incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to be associated with this man and his science.”

Wallace Broecker wearing a medal with President Bill Clinton clapping behind him.
President Bill Clinton awards Broecker the National Medal of Science in 1996. He received the award for his research on ocean circulation, the global carbon cycle and climate change. Broecker won several awards in the Earth sciences, including the prestigious Crafoord Prize, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for his field. (Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory)

Other researchers from numerous fields credited Broecker’s findings as foundational to their work. Geoscientist Jean Lynch-Stieglitz of the Georgia Institute of Technology said she “found Wally’s fingerprints all over” her research, as she used his model of the ocean “conveyor belt” to track how nutrients and heat circulated in the last 10,000 years. LDEO paleoclimatologist Dorothy Peteet shared the results of her and Broecker’s joint investigation into the causes and timing of glacier retreats during the last ice age.

Presenters also highlighted the scientist’s outspoken views on addressing climate change. Peter Schlosser, an earth scientist at Arizona State University, played a video clip of Broecker’s final address to the scientific community about necessary actions to limit global warming. From his hospital bed in 2018, Broecker said more drastic climate mitigation measures must be considered, such as capturing carbon dioxide from the air or injecting cooling aerosols into the atmosphere. The address was first played at the Planetary Management Symposium, held last year at Arizona State.

“If we are going to prevent the planet from warming up another couple degrees,” Broecker said, “we’re going to have to go to geoengineering.”

Praise of Broecker’s personal character pervaded the symposium with warm testimonies to his values and quirks. He was an “intellectual snow plow” who tackled problems with rigor and confidence, said Princeton geophysicist Daniel Sigman. His passion sometimes overflowed into what LDEO oceanographer Mark Cane called “strategic and effective” tantrums, often digging in his heels against administration and correcting guest speakers in his own class. Broecker was also a lifelong prankster, with stories of his tomfoolery tracing back to high school, when he rarely got caught. More recently, he had a staff member take his place during a video conference and mime the words Broecker was saying off-camera. (He didn’t get away with that one.)

Jerry McManus next to a lectern and giving a speech.
LDEO professor Jerry McManus, who led the organization of the Wally Broecker Symposium, speaks about abrupt climate change that occurred at the end of the last Ice Age. (Zack Fishman/MEDILL)

“He had such a human heart,” McManus said, and fellow LDEO faculty member William Ryan called Broecker a “master of kindness.” Numerous attendees said he was an important influence in determining their career path as someone who often opened doors of opportunity. Ahbijit Sanyal, a director at Johnson & Johnson and another former student, said his teacher was “like a father” to him and once used his influence to help Sanyal’s wife immigrate to the U.S.

Yet more often, Broecker played down his status as a prolific researcher, and one scientist said he didn’t care about “personal wealth” or “glory.” He seemingly disliked his fame for popularizing the phrase “global warming” — he once offered his students $250 to find an example of its use before his landmark 1975 paper, though none were successful.

But Broecker paid a lot of attention to young scientists and their success. Encouragement and affirmation goes a long way for junior scientists, said Mayaan Yehudai, a Ph.D. student at LDEO and previously a teaching assistant for two of Broecker’s classes.

“When you’re a student, you don’t always know when you know that you’re qualified,” Yehudai said. “So, to have somebody like that tell me that I’m qualified or to believe in me is very, very meaningful.”

After the first full day of presentations, the visitors attended a ballroom dinner and listened to several heartfelt speeches from Broecker’s family and friends, including several senior members of LDEO. Filmmaker Anna Keyes presented a video centered around an interview with Broecker, her grandfather. His two younger sisters, Bonnie Chapin and Judy Revekop, told stories of growing up with a high-energy and caring Wally.

Young Wally Broecker posing with his name in mugshot style.
Broecker, then 22, poses for his student ID photograph as he joined the Columbia University geology department in 1953. (Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory)

Broecker didn’t want a memorial, so the symposium was the largest gathering his family has attended in his memory, Revekop said. Nevertheless, she believes he would have appreciated the event.

“I’m sure he would love to be a little something sitting on a corner, watching and enjoying,” she said.

The dinner also featured an outpouring of musical talent. Geophysicist Richard Alley of Pennsylvania State University wrote and performed a song about his colleague’s career on a prerecorded video, drawing laughs from the attendees. Tom Chapin, a brother-in-law of Broecker and Grammy-winning folk singer, also played an original song about the late scientist’s research. His daughters, Abigail and Lily Chapin, later joined him to sing — this time, less about science and more on spiritual unity.

Broecker’s daughter Cynthia Kennedy, who attended the dinner and livestreamed the seminar, said the symposium was “fabulous” and praised the community of scientists it brought together.

“What they did for him was as much as he gave to them, because that’s what kept him going: their curious minds and their youth and their energy,” Kennedy said. “He fed on that, and that’s what made him who he was.”

Read more about Wally Broecker and his partnership with late philanthropist Gary Comer to launch a national initiative of climate research fellowships that Comer funded. The Comer Family Foundation continues to support the climate change research program. 

Photo at top: Wallace Broecker in 2018 at Leeward Farms in Casper, Wyoming. (Jasmin Shah/Comer Family Foundation)



‘Grandfather of climate science’ Wally Broecker remembered at climate conference

‘Grandfather of climate science’ Wally Broecker remembered at climate conference

By Zack Fishman, Nov. 20, 2019 —

Dozens of scientists convene every year  at the Comer Climate Conference to share new research about rising oceans and melting glaciers, both today and in the past. The event, funded by the family of late billionaire philanthropist Gary Comer, has been organized since 2004 by famed climate scientists Wallace Broecker, Richard Alley and George Denton.

But this fall, the conference was overcast by Broecker’s death in February. Colleagues, students and friends shared stories and memories of the influential scientist, who passed away at the age of 87 still actively engaged in climate research. The 2019 conference honored his legacy with the latest findings in global climate science.

Born in 1931 in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Wallace Smith Broecker — known as Wally to all who knew him — completed his Ph.D. in geology at Columbia University and joined the faculty the following year. As a professor at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Broecker significantly contributed to several fields of ocean- and climate-related research. He introduced the concept of a “conveyor belt” that connects the world’s oceans through heat-driven circulation and he led the scientific community in using radioactive isotopes of carbon to date the oceans’ past.

Broecker is most well known for popularizing the phrase “global warming” in a 1975 paper that predicted the modern rise of global temperatures. He was also a longtime proponent of action on climate change, warning about the “climate beast” created by CO₂ emissions.

“It’s got the seeds of really terrible chaos on the planet, and we’ve got to start to respect that,” Broecker said at the 2018 Comer Climate Conference.

In his last conference appearance, he promoted controversial measures to mitigate the warming climate such as removing CO₂ and spraying cooling sulfates into the atmosphere.

Wally Broecker speaks to another scientist
Wally Broecker walks through an explanation during the 2018 Comer Climate Conference (Jasmin Shah/Comer Family Foundation)

One year later, several attendees invoked Broecker’s memory in both social and academic settings over the four-day-long conference. They described him as an innovative researcher, supportive mentor and notorious prankster. Broecker once left his research group behind with nothing but water bottles and a note saying they had to walk several miles back to town — only to be waiting with a bus a mile down the road, according to geoscientist Jeffrey Severinghaus,.

Severinghaus, who teaches at the University of California San Diego, earned his Ph.D. at LDEO with Broecker as his academic advisor. He praised the late scientist’s mentorship and academic prowess.

“He had a great talent in seeing the major part of a scientific story and not getting all lost in the weeds,” Severinghaus said.

Jerry McManus, a geochemistry professor at LDEO, attended Columbia as an undergraduate student and took an advanced course taught by Broecker.

“He took the two undergraduates in his Ph.D. class and sat down with us every week and said, ‘Did you follow everything? What did you think about this or that?’” McManus said.

“He didn’t have to do that — he’s in one of the most famous scientists on earth, and you’re just two random students,” McManus continued. “But he took that interest, and it was my observation then as an undergraduate student that he was very generous with me.”

Broecker’s involvement with Gary Comer, founder of clothing company Lands’ End, began after Comer’s yacht trip through the Arctic in 2001. He sailed through the typically frozen Northwest Passage connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and became concerned about the melting ice. He met with Broecker and other scientists to learn about global warming, said Stephanie Comer, his daughter and the president of the Comer Family Foundation.

“This sparked a friendship and the climate change program our foundation supports today,” Stephanie said.

After the meeting, Comer funded dozens of climate research fellowships and later created the conference in 2004 for recipients to share their research. Gary Comer passed away in 2006, but the Comer Family Foundation continues to support the climate change research. Broecker attended every conference until his death.

“Wally was instrumental in shaping the topics and helping to guide the discussions (at the conference),” Stephanie said. “His knowledge was vast and specific and arcane. … While he challenged his students, he was a devoted mentor and celebrated new and diverse generations of scientists.”

(Full disclosure: Zack Fishman receives a scholarship for environmental journalism from the Comer Family Foundation as a student at Northwestern University.)

Elena Bruess and Anne Snabes contributed reporting to this story.

Greenland ‘ice tongue’ at risk of melting away — again

Greenland ‘ice tongue’ at risk of melting away — again

By Zack Fishman, Nov. 12, 2019 —

A 30-mile-long strip of sea ice in northwest Greenland, once thought to be a permanent structure, didn’t exist until 2,000 years ago, according to newly published research from researchers at Oregon State University. The findings suggest that some of the Arctic may melt more quickly in today’s warming climate than previously expected.

The sea ice, known as the Petermann ice tongue, stretches across a narrow valley where the large Petermann Glacier meets the Arctic Ocean. The ice tongue captured media attention in 2010 and 2012 when enormous icebergs, each many times larger than Manhattan Island, broke off into the ocean. New fractures spotted this year threaten to shrink the ice tongue to its smallest size in modern history.

Renowned geoscientist talks climate research, renewable solutions

Renowned geoscientist talks climate research, renewable solutions

By Zack Fishman, Oct. 29, 2019

Richard Alley caught a cold while flying to southwest Wisconsin for the annual Comer Climate Conference land, hosted each fall by the Comer Family Foundation. But the illness didn’t stop the seasoned scientist from celebrating each research presentation with emphatic words of encouragement, and he used his closing speech to remind his peers of their crucial role in combating climate change.

As a professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, Alley has spent over three decades studying glaciers around the globe. When not in the lab, he has testified in Congress three times and hosted the PBS documentary series “Earth: The Operators’ Manual,” in which he explained the science of climate change and introduced technological solutions to the problem.

Alley joined journalists reporting for the Medill News Service in the library of late billionaire, Lands’ End founder and yachtsman Gary Comer. Surrounded by books on sailing and the Arctic, Alley answered questions about climate change. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Why do you think it’s important to bring glaciologists, oceanographers and other scientists together for this conference?

This conference brings this amazing range of people working on modern atmospheres, modern oceans, modern ice and rocks, and the history of all of these. I believe that there’s a cross-fertilization — that the skills, the knowledge, the modeling tools that are developed in one of these fields inform the others.

What inspired you to work on climate issues?

I was greatly interested in geology, collecting rocks, crawling through caves and going to national parks. I just liked those growing up. So, I majored in geology and went to Ohio State. I desperately needed a summer job, and there were two summer jobs open. One of them was cleaning fossils with a dental pick, and I’d probably be an evolutionary biologist now, but the other one was helping the glaciologist. So I started working on ice, and once you get very far into ice, you realize it has this glorious climate record in it, and you realize it’s melting, and now you’re a climate scientist.

Why has science communication and helping others understand climate change been important to you?

Because really, it’s our job. I am not a meteorologist, but I know some of them, and there’s been a fascinating evolution in how meteorologists view their job. They got to the point that they were able to forecast the weather well, and they realized that when they forecast a disaster or possible disaster, many people were not responding to it. And they realized that they weren’t communicating in a way that conveyed all the information that the public needed to make use of the information. They looked at themselves and said, “Our job is not understanding the weather, our job is not forecasting the weather — that’s part of the job. Our job is to make it useful to the people who pay for it.”

So, I’ve been inspired by what they’ve done and seeing what other people do in the communications realm because there’s very clearly a huge disconnect between what we know about climate, about energy, about our future and what is being done with that knowledge. Ultimately, I really do believe that the public has paid partially for my education, partially for my job, and that I owe it to them to make the information useful as well as to get the information.

How have you, Gary Comer and Wally Broecker (late geophysicist and co-founder of the Comer Climate Conference) contributed to science communication?

Gary had a vision worked out with Wally Broecker and others of using the history of climate change to inform good decision-making. This was partially because he really wanted to make a difference with his money, and he was looking for those topics that were not well covered.

So by gaining information on this topic, which is so miscommunicated, this immediately drops us in the communications. How do we do this? How do we learn? If I ever fall into scientific jargon, it probably won’t work.

You’ve been very optimistic in the past about the economic opportunities of solving climate change. How do you feel about it now?

I still believe that if we use our knowledge, we’re better off. Lazard, the world’s largest independent investment bank, puts out statements on what different forms of energy costs to add to our electric grid in the U.S. They have said that if you got rid of all the subsidies for wind and sun, but you left in place all the subsidies for fossil fuels, that in many places and many times now in the U.S., wind and sun are still cheaper.

We’re the first generation in all of history that knows that we can build a sustainable energy system if we want to, and that knows that right now, if you actually got rid of those subsidies for fossil fuels, that renewables are really cheaper.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photo at top: Richard Alley speaks to an audience of more than 50 ocean and climate scientists at the Comer Climate Conference. (Abigail Foerstner/MEDILL)

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