COVID-19’s minimal climate impact highlights need for momentous action now

COVID-19’s minimal climate impact highlights need for momentous action now

By Liam Bohen-Meissner, Jan 28., 2021

PODCAST  Global carbon dioxide emission dropped 7 percent worldwide due to a decrease in human activity after COVID-19 brought much of the world to a standstill. Despite this, the climate impacts of COVID-19 turned out to be negligible, with 2020 tied with 2016 as the hottest year on record. Global temperatures have risen 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) over the past decades and are expected to meet or exceed the 1.5 degree ceiling set by the Paris Climate Agreement by 2030 without drastic decreases in fossil fuel emissions..

If a global pandemic is not enough to put a dent in climate change, then what hope do we have? Local Illinois climate experts provide their insight on what changes must be made if we are to succeed in this battle with the climate crisis.

Liam Bohen-Meissner is a health and politics reporter at Medill.

Scientists applaud President Biden’s White House science team and commitment to science

Scientists applaud President Biden’s White House science team and commitment to science

By Shivani Majmudar,  Jan 22, 2021 –
President Joe Biden’s White House science team faces cascading crises as it takes command amid COVID-19, escalating climate change and crippling public doubts about science. But scientists across the country are confident the new administration is up to the challenge, especially under the leadership of science adviser Eric Lander, the pioneer who helped map the human genome.

Biden selected Lander, a renowned geneticist and mathematician, to be his science adviser and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) before his inauguration. If confirmed, Lander will be the first life scientist to hold either position, as well as the first to hold Cabinet-level status.

“[Biden’s] appointment sends a powerful message that science will regain its place as the foundation for formulating the future of medical and health policy,” said Dr. Howard Koh, a physician and professor at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in an email.

Veteran geoscientist Richard Alley of Pennsylvania State University sees environmental issues and other science policy securing high priority as well. Not only is the recognition of biomedical sciences at the top positions in government long overdue, he said, but Lander’s expertise and knowledge of the scientific process also will inform policy solutions across all sectors.

President Barack Obama, left, confers with President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology Co-chairs Eric Lander, center, and Dr. John Holdren on March 27, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Lander was the principle investigator in the famous Human Genome Project, which sequenced the entire coding of human DNA in 2003. Under former President Barack Obama’s administration, he was co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) and advised the president on many issues that are still prevalent today including climate change, clean energy and vaccine rollout during the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 2009.

Lander will step down from his role as the founding director of the Broad Institute, a research collaborative of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to serve in the White House again.

“The science adviser is someone who brings science to the table of policy discussion and understands the difference between science and unsubstantiated opinion,” said science policy leader Andrew Rosenberg, who heads the Center of Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It’s what Lander can do and what I believe he will do.”

More broadly, scientists look forward to the dawn of a new era in which the nation’s leadership respects science, renews public trust in science and shapes evidence-based policy in the public’s best interest — a stark contrast from the past four years.

“It’s tough to have an influence if you’re not in the room,” Rosenberg said of scientists during former President Donald Trump’s administration. “There’s a lot of catching up to do.”

Biden has ambitious plans to do just that. To address the raging pandemic, he is committed to administering 100 million COVID-19 vaccines in his first 100 days in office. This comes as recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests only 46% of all vaccine doses distributed so far have been administered.

Biden’s climate agenda is just as bold. It calls for the U.S. to achieve 100% clean energy and net-zero emissions by 2050.

Other priorities Biden set for the Cabinet-level science post include technological innovation, racial justice and long-term economic sustainability. Biden outlined these in a letter he wrote to Lander after his nomination.

Some scientists have reservations about the new team, particularly about the need to stress climate reform. Joellen Russell, a professor of biogeochemical dynamics and a leading national expert in climate science on faculty at the University of Arizona, said she is incredibly enthusiastic about the prospect of the country’s scientific future. But she added she is surprised the climate team was comprised mostly of lawyers and policy people.

“I think there are some gaps that are unlikely to be seen by people who are not climate scientists,” Russell said.

Russell is a strong proponent of accountability through public verification of federal action taken to mitigate climate change, such as policies to lower carbon emissions. Climate scientists are the best positioned to develop effective and accurate testing mechanisms, she said.

Russell agreed with Rosenberg and Alley, though, that the responsibility falls on the science community to support the administration and hold it to its commitments.

The rest of Biden’s science team is a diverse, deeply respected group of qualified scientists, including two prominent female co-chairs, bioengineer Frances Arnold and sociologist Alondra Nelson. If confirmed, Nelson will serve as OSTP deputy director for science and society, another White House first.

So far, Biden has followed through on many of the promises he was elected on. In his first two days as president, Biden signed at least 17 executive orders, including establishing a national mask and social distancing mandate on federal property, and rejoining the Paris climate agreement from which Trump withdrew the U.S. in 2017.

Rosenberg said he also hopes to see an executive order implementing a scientific integrity policy in all federal agencies — this would explicitly outlaw any political manipulation of science before it is presented to advisory boards or the public.

“There are a lot of big tasks ahead,” Rosenberg said. “But I’m sure Dr. Lander and the White House science team will be up to it.”

Shivani Majmudar covers health disparities, science and policy at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter @spmajmudarr.

Next generation climate scientists study Earth’s responses to rapidly rising temperatures

Next generation climate scientists study Earth’s responses to rapidly rising temperatures

By Grace Rodgers, Dec. 18, 2020 –

In a race against climate change, Yuxin Zhou, 26, is among the next generation of climate scientists studying the Earth’s responses to rapidly rising temperatures, threatening life on the planet.

As a fifth-year Ph.D. student at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, studying how the Earth’s climate behaved in the past is the best way for Zhou to understand the pace and consequences of climate change today.

In a similar way, to understand Zhou’s pathway into climate science, it’s important to look back on his journey to the present.

After graduating high school in Nanjing, China, Zhou moved to the United States to study computer science at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. However, less than one year into the undergraduate program, he switched to geological sciences, inspired by his first earth science class.

“My deepest memory is my professor talking about his experience going into a submersible for research. He said it’s like looking down from an airplane onto New York City streets because it’s bustling with life,” Zhou said. “It was really that class that captured me and helped me become interested in earth science.”

Yuxin Zhou and Pablo Alasino working performing field work in Argentina.
While in Argentina as a University of Southern California undergraduate student, Zhou worked with professor Pablo Alasino (left) on geological mapping. (Yuxin Zhou//Columbia University)

While in undergrad, he also participated in multiple research opportunities in geochemistry, one of which was a summer fellowship at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. He also gained publications in Nature Geoscience and Journal of Geophysical Research – Atmosphere.

From there, he moved cross-country to pursue a degree in earth and environmental sciences at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory just outside of New York City.

“I just really wanted to continue to do the research, and earning a Ph.D. was the natural next step,” Zhou said.

As a current fifth-year Ph.D. student, Zhou’s research focuses on the factors destabilizing the circulation in the North Atlantic, spanning the past 150,000 years

Jerry McManus, a geochemistry professor and researcher at Lamont-Doherty, works closely with Zhou as his research advisor and has seen his growth as a young scientist in the field.

“He started his Ph.D. working on more recent climate issues, and then became interested in paleoclimate and in geochemistry. He’s gone up a learning curve and has done brilliantly,” said McManus. “I work with wonderful, bright junior people, and if I can stay out of their way and help them to do their great work, then that works out the best all-around.”

Yuxin Zhou standing at a podium presenting his research at the Goldschmidt geochemistry conference in Barcelona.
While at the Goldschmidt geochemistry conference in Barcelona, Zhou presented his research on the history of iceberg discharge in the western North Atlantic. (Athena Nghiem//Columbia University)

In early October, both Zhou and McManus presented their new research at the Comer Climate Conference, an annual summit where climate scientists from around the world gather to present emerging research.

Zhou’s presentation focused on his new method to track and measure the amount of freshwater released by melting icebergs following Heinrich events. Icebergs break off from glaciers into the ocean all the time, but Heinrich events are special in that a large number of icebergs do so in a short amount of time. These events can impact ocean circulation and in turn, weather temperatures, storms and rainfall across the globe.

Unlike existing research on iceberg melting in the North Atlantic, Zhou’s new method measures the amount of freshwater and the location of freshwater released. Much of his research is based on new and previously published measurements of sediment cores collected from ocean floors in the North Atlantic.

In measuring these sediment cores, Zhou can identify specific elements and isotopes within sections of the core that correlate to the amount of freshwater released by melting icebergs during a certain period of time. The correlations follow past ice ages and warm spells, which can help predict the pace of climate change today.

“I have the opportunity to use and apply cutting edge technologies to analyze the cores,” Zhou said. “It’s very inspiring to me because you’re not thinking about your own or your own generation’s scientific career, but 10s of years in the future.”

While at Lamont-Doherty, Zhou has worked alongside Celeste Pallone, a 2nd-year Ph.D. student.

“The biggest things I’ve learned from his work is both how he does lab work, but also how he organizes and prepares his data,” said Pallone. “I’ve learned what kind of statistical methods he uses to back up his claims, and just how to do good science.”

Yuxin Zhou standing at a booth with Jennifer Middleton presenting their research at the annual Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory open house.
During the annual Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory open house, Zhou worked with a team (right: Jennifer Middleton, a postdoc researcher) on an exhibition about iron availability in the ocean. (Yuxin Zhou//Columbia University)

In addition to earning his Ph.D., Zhou hopes to remain in academia, working with students in science. For the past two years, Zhou has volunteered for the nonprofit Girls Who Code, teaching high school girls how to create a website. He has also worked as the Graduate Student Committee chair at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, advocating for student concerns to the department and pushing for student representation on hiring committees.

“Having an inclusive teaching environment and active learning experience is very important to me,” Zhou said. “We want to make sure that hiring has a certain voice on it, and hopefully, that will translate to more diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Looking into the future, Zhou hopes to work with other climate scientists to help predict and mitigate the effects of climate change. Having comparisons between data observations and model simulations can be a very powerful tool to narrow down estimates on the freshwater fluxes and their impacts, Zhou said.

“What we’re seeing now is unprecedented. We do have some imperfect analogs of the current scenario in the past,” Zhou said. “But by better understanding those past events, we establish a baseline of what may happen in the future.”

For a deeper dive into Zhou’s research process, read “Breaking down clues to climate change from ocean floors to measure iceberg melting“on Medill Reports.

Grace Rodgers is health, environment and science reporters at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @gracelizrodgers.

Rare-earth metal reveals ancient ocean currents linked to climate triggers

Rare-earth metal reveals ancient ocean currents linked to climate triggers

By Marisa Sloan, Dec. 18, 2020 –

Despite the sci-fi name of this rare-earth element, neodymium is actually pretty common. The silvery metal is used in everything from cell phones and wind turbines to tanning booths and electric guitars.

But it’s the neodymium found thousands of meters below the ocean’s surface that captured the interest of Dr. Sophie Hines, a postdoctoral research fellow at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Hines traced the metal trapped within ancient marine sediments to reconstruct changes in ocean circulation reaching as far back as one million years ago. She presented her research at the Comer Climate Conference, an annual meeting of climate scientists that was held virtually this October.

“The ocean neodymium cycle is something that people have been studying for a long time,” she said. “But there are still parts that we’re learning.”

Because the global ocean circulation system brings water from the surface down to the deep ocean, it is thought to play an important role in trapping atmospheric carbon dioxide and triggering global climate changes.

According to Hines, different forms of neodymium wind up in the ocean through the weathering of various rocks and minerals. The neodymium composition of the North Atlantic Ocean, which is characterized by older continental crust, is distinct from that of the Pacific Ocean, which has more volcanoes and newly erupted material. These differences make it easier for climate scientists to trace the movement of seawater away from its sources and reconstruct changes in deep ocean currents.

“Trying to figure out how the ocean impacted climate in the past is interesting in and of itself,” Hines said. “But it also serves as an important calibration data set to make sure that the models we’re using to look at future climate change are accurate.”

Right now, the oceans provide a huge “carbon sink,” absorbing much of the carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels that are warming the planet at a threatening pace. The less carbon dioxide there is in the atmosphere, the colder the planet becomes.

According to a 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, smaller glaciers will melt by more than 80% by the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions continue on their current trajectory. The resulting influx of fresh water will likely disrupt ocean currents and, by extension, the climate in a way humans have yet to see.

Even if emissions were stabilized tomorrow, it would take many years for the oceans to adjust to the 1° C rise in global temperatures that has already occurred.

In 2016, Hines joined a two month-long deep-sea drilling expedition to South Africa’s Cape Basin on a whim when another researcher couldn’t make the trip. Although she was wrapping up the final year of her PhD program, she had yet to work in the field and didn’t know what to expect.

Location map of Integrated Ocean Drilling Program Site U1479, approximately 85 nautical miles southwest of Cape Town, South Africa
Location map of Integrated Ocean Drilling Program Site U1479, approximately 85 nautical miles southwest of Cape Town, South Africa. Water in this region comes from a complex mix of sources, including the North Atlantic, Indian and Southern Oceans. (Marisa Sloan/MEDILL)

“I was on the day shift, which [was] from noon until midnight,” Hines said. “Every day we did all this science, and then in the time we had off we hung out and watched movies and watched the stars at night.”

The first few weeks were new and exciting, she said. Each scientist onboard had his or her own tasks to do, ranging from dating the 9-meter-long sediment cores by their micro-fossils to squeezing water out of them with a hydraulic press.

By the time the sixth week rolled around, however, everyone was stepping on each other’s toes.

“Then we made it to Cape Town and had a big party,” she said, laughing. “I remember being most excited to have a beer and eat a salad by the end.”

The Cape Basin, where Hines traveled in search of ancient sediment cores, lies in The South Atlantic Ocean between the North Atlantic and the Pacific. Her chemical analysis shows a shift toward more Pacific-like water in the area during the last glacial period, from approximately 110,000 to 12,000 years ago⁠, perhaps revealing an ocean circulation that sequestered carbon dioxide-rich water in the Pacific and stored it in the South Atlantic.

Bob Anderson, a founder of the international program GEOTRACES and professor at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said her results correlate well with similar studies on carbon and carbonate ions.

“I agree [with Hines], but I don’t think we can make that as a final conclusion yet,” he said. “We know from a lot of neodymium data coming out right now that it’s more complicated than people used to think.”

In fact, another study published earlier this year posits an opposite conclusion. It suggests the changes in neodymium concentration in the South Atlantic may actually be a result of changes in the North Atlantic, rather than a switch to water from the Pacific.

“What I think we need are more records from the shallow to mid-depth North Atlantic and from the Pacific,” Hines said.

That’s the goal of Anderson’s program GEOTRACES, which is designed to study traces of neodymium and a barrage of other elements found within all of the earth’s major ocean basins. So far, scientists from approximately 35 nations have been involved in the expeditions to better understand how the chemical environment affects ecosystem function and vice versa.

Anderson said he expects those mysteries will be better understood in the next few decades, although he will likely be cheering on scientists like Hines from the sidelines by then.

“It will take combining the data that I collected with other people’s data to try and get a more holistic understanding of what happened,” Hines said. “That’s the hard part. And it’s also the fun part.”

Marisa Sloan is a health, environment and science reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @sloan_marisa.

New glacial chronology lays groundwork for understanding rapid melt of modern ice sheets with climate change

New glacial chronology lays groundwork for understanding rapid melt of modern ice sheets with climate change

By Grace Rodgers, Dec. 18, 2020 –

Researchers have long tracked the timing and retreat patterns of the North American Laurentide ice sheet, the greatest ice sheet to exist in the Ice Age. During that time, nearly two-thirds of the rise in the global sea level was caused by the melting of the Laurentide — the majority of which occurred over 10,000 years.

“That’s an interesting, dynamic problem. In many senses, they’re very few other elements that size on the planet that change that rapidly,” said Thomas Lowell, a geology professor at the University of Cincinnati.

For over 40 years, Lowell has studied the Laurentide and tracked two key behaviors the ice sheet exhibited during climate changes: the amount of meltwater and ice margin retreat. Lowell presented his most recent research on these two behaviors at the annual Comer Climate Conference, an annual summit where climate scientists from around the world gather to present emerging research.

Over a five-year research process, Lowell and a team of scientists assembled the first-ever annual chronology tracking the amount of meltwater released and the rate at which the Laurentide retreated. The chronology begins nearly 12,700 years ago and spans a 1,500-year transition between the late Younger Dryas, a geologic interval of colder temperatures, and the Holocene boundary, a geologic interval of warmer temperatures.

Lowell predicted the measurements would show a slower retreat rate and less meltwater during the cold interval, and a faster retreat rate and more meltwater during the warm interval. However, the chronology revealed the meltwater doubled at the transition between the cold and warm interval, while the ice sheet retreated at a constant rate.

“If you melt a glacier more, you expect it to shrink faster. But the interval that we recorded, [the retreat rate] didn’t seem to be paying attention [to the temperature],” said Lowell. “Even though it was melting faster, it was still backing up and retreating at the same rate.”

While melting in warmer temperatures was expected, Lowell was surprised the glacier retreated at the same rate despite the higher meltwater.

“There’s nothing super exciting about the [meltwater] findings, but coupled with the [retreat rate] findings, they seemingly conflict with each other,” said Lowell.

The team of scientists working on the frozen ice using measuring equipment.
The team of scientists spent roughly four weeks researching and plotting core sites for the varve chronology. Afterward, the team spent roughly six weeks collecting the sediment cores across frozen lakes in Central North America. (Dr. Andy Breckenridge//University of Wisconsin)

To quantify the amount of glacial meltwater, Lowell and the team of scientists recovered roughly 1,000 meters total of sediment cores, one meter at a time across lakes in Central North America. Back in the lab, scientists measure the core’s “varves”, the thickness of sediment layers deposited in one year. Each varve indicates the amount of melting that occurred in one year: the thicker the layer, the more meltwater.

Altogether, the sediment cores serve as a chronology of meltwater. Measuring varve units can be critical for assessing the response of both past and present ice sheets to climate change.

“[Varves] were an archive that we really needed to understand the ice,” said Dr. Andy Breckenridge, lead author and a geology professor at the University of Wisconsin. “We knew the record was there and we designed a strategy where we were going after modern lakes to reconstruct it.”

The Geographic Information System equipment taking a photo of a sediment core.
Using a Geographic Information System at the University of Minnesota, Breckenridge captures a high-resolution image of the sediment cores to measure each varve. (Dr. Andy Breckenridge//University of Wisconsin)

Breckenridge measured each sediment core, beginning by taking high-resolution scans to survey the varve thickness and color. Lighter layers indicate summer seasons, meaning the sediment is coarser due to warmer temperatures. Darker layers indicate winter seasons, meaning the sediment finer grain due to colder temperatures. Once tallied on a spreadsheet, Breckenridge identifies thickness patterns to organize the varve chronology.

While one half of the cores are used for data collection, the other half is stored in a refrigerated warehouse allowing researchers from around the world to come and study the chronological cores.

“[Other researchers] are going to be able to request samples from our cores,” Breckenridge said. “And that’s already happened at some of our sites. I know some of our cores have been used for a carbon storage question”

Now that these findings are published, Lowell’s current research question asks: are these melting patterns a behavior of the whole ice sheet or just a small part of it, and if so, is that small part important. Further research into past and present glacial melting is critical to help us understand sea level change that threatens the livelihood of millions around the world.

“The ice sheets have the potential to change sea level, enough to really matter to society,” said Lowell.

Grace Rodgers is health, environment and science reporters at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @gracelizrodgers.

Trump warns the Green New Deal will ‘take out the cows.’ Here’s the science showing why that’s a myth.

Trump warns the Green New Deal will ‘take out the cows.’ Here’s the science showing why that’s a myth.

By Carlyn Kranking and Grace Rodgers, Nov. 19, 2020 –

At the first 2020 Presidential debate, President Donald Trump said that Green New Deal supporters “want to take out the cows” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Not only is this claim untrue, but eliminating cows, which notoriously produce the greenhouse gas methane, isn’t necessary to address climate change, according to University of Oxford researchers.

“It would be good if you maybe ate less beef, had less milk — but we don’t need to completely get rid of all the cows,” said John Lynch, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford.

Lynch studies ways to anticipate the impacts of greenhouse gases and suggests that the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide is more important to address than methane. It takes much less time to reverse the impact of methane emissions than it does to undo the effects of carbon dioxide, so it’s possible to delay addressing methane, he said. His suggestion has huge implications, because the way greenhouse gases are reported and compared in policies today doesn’t make it clear how differently these gases behave.

The Global Warming Potential (GWP) is a metric used to compare how much different greenhouse gases will warm the atmosphere across a given period into the future. Organizations including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change publish the GWP in their reports.

However, Lynch’s research shows that, for some purposes, the GWP metric may be misleading. Reporting all gases as though they were on the same playing field, experts say, does not account for key differences between them, especially between methane and carbon dioxide.

“Metrics that try and treat the gases in the same way are always going to have limitations,” Lynch said.

A figure from Lynch’s report demonstrates the differing effects of carbon dioxide and methane on warming over time.

In the first few decades after it’s emitted, methane causes more warming per kilogram than carbon dioxide does. Methane, however, breaks down after about 12 years, while carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere, warming the planet for millennia.

Calculating warming potential over 100 years, for instance, does not account for how strongly methane warms the planet initially, nor does it account for the full effects that CO2 emissions will have.

So, if the GWP measurement is misleading, what does this mean for potential policies based on that statistic?

It would be best to cut both carbon dioxide and methane emissions, Lynch said. But because governments have limited will and resources to address the problem, he said it is more important to achieve net zero carbon emissions before cutting methane.

“If we prioritize the methane, first we will have a large quick benefit” as methane levels in the atmosphere rapidly fall, Lynch said. “But in the meantime, we will have carried on emitting all the CO2 that we decided not to bother with because methane looks easy. And then, in a couple of decades, we’ll be stuck with that CO2 warming, whereas if we just delayed our action on methane, we’d still be able to reverse that.”

Still, governments should not ignore methane emissions in climate policy, as all greenhouse gases warm the planet, Lynch said. But ultimately, the most important thing to do is to get to net zero carbon dioxide, because that’s the gas with the longest-lasting and biggest impact on global warming.

“There’s a lot of harm in delaying things that address carbon emissions,” said physicist Raymond Pierrehumbert, a professor and statutory chair in the physics department at the University of Oxford.

These long-lasting emissions will warm the planet, causing more extreme weather conditions, droughts, floods and rising sea levels. The longer it takes to reach net-zero CO2 emissions, the more severe these effects will be.

That’s why Lynch feels we “don’t really have a choice” on whether or not to decrease carbon emissions.

“All of your energy needs to be decarbonized,” Lynch said. “If we don’t, we’ll never stop the temperature going up.”

Carlyn Kranking and Grace Rodgers are Health, Environment and Science reporters at Medill. You can follow them on Twitter at @carlyn_kranking and @gracelizrodgers. 

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)



4,000 floating robots take on climate change

4,000 floating robots take on climate change

By Elena Bruess, Oct. 16, 2019 –
I ziplined recently with a scientist who told me that her work involved almost 4,000 floating robots and a massive global computer database that could help her predict the future of our world’s climate.

This was during a break in the Comer Climate Conference and the woods behind conference headquarters held many mysteries, including a zipline and now – for me – the world’s most interesting researcher. I quickly scribbled “should probably catch up with her” in a notebook.

I did. She gave a presentation on her work the next day to climate scientists from across the nation gathered at the annual science meetup in southwestern Wisconsin.

My fellow zipliner is Becki Beadling, a Ph.D. Candidate in geosciences at the University of Arizona at Tuscon. Her work involves climate model simulations and in-field observations specifically focusing on climate change in relation to carbon uptake in the Southern Ocean.

A climate model replicates interactions between important factors that drive the climate, such as temperature, salinity, pressure as well as carbon cycling. The climate model database is called the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project – CMIP for short. The project goes hand-in-hand with the U.N.’s recent climate change reports, generating data from modeling centers all over the world. All the centers are running the exact same experiments and all the data is available through this database for anyone involved.

It’s a big system.

Unfortunately the models can be off the mark.

“The only way we can trust these models is by verifying them against past observations, historical observations and what’s happening now. I want to know how well these models represent these properties,” Beadling said, during another conference break. “And then looking into the future, how well the circulations and properties in this region are projected to change.”

According to Beadling, the models give us a range of possible scenarios of what might happen as the planet warms, glaciers melt, sea levels swamp coastlines and drought threatens millions. The comparison between what the computer analyzes and the actual observations can offer climate researchers a better idea of what to expect in the future. The closer the current observation is to the model, the more accurate the model can be to predict the pace and range of future change.

Geoscientist Becki Beadling, 29, abroad a US GO-SHIP on course from Syndey, Australia, to Papeete, Tahiti, in 2017. During her trip, the team released a number of SOCCOM “robot” floats to observe elements in the water. (Courtesy of Rebecca Beadling)

Observing the elements in the oceans can be a time-consuming and expensive task, though. A couple of years ago, Beadling went on a cruise. This was not your average trip to the Bahamas, but rather a research ship that is meant to measure the properties in the ocean. The same as the models: temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, nitrate, etc. The researchers release robot floaters called SOCCOM Floats at the same transects of the ocean decade after decade.

Each floater spends 10 days dipping down and back up, beaming data to the researchers on the land and then the cycle continues again.

The chart above depicts how a “robot” float works. SOCCOM floats work in the same way, but check for more than just temperature, salinity and pressure (Courtesy of Argo)
CAD drawing of a SOCCOM biogeochemical robot float. (Rick Rupan, University of Washington)

“It’s very new. Humans could not look at the great abyss of the global ocean, 71% of the Earth’s surface, because we could only go where we go in a ship,” said Joellen Russell, a biogeochemical dynamics professor at the University of Arizona and the chair of Integrative Science. Similar to Beadling, she works with the global database. She also attended the conference. “Now the robots do our work for us, and they keep working day-in and day-out, it doesn’t matter.”

According to Russell, there are just under 4,000 robots floating around right now, as Beadling mentioned.

Every dot on the map represents a “robot” float in the ocean as of October 11. (Courtesy of Becki Beadling)

When consulting the mix of the robot data and the current CMIP simulations, Beadling, Russell and other climate researchers can attempt to predict what our oceans will look like in the next century. Specifically they look to the Southern Ocean.

“When we think about modern climate, roughly 90% of the excess heat that’s trapped on our planet from greenhouse gas emissions has gone into our oceans. And the Southern Ocean is taking up the most,” Beadling said. “Heat and carbon are the most important components when thinking of the past, present and future of climate.”

The additional heat is in large part generated by human-driven emissions from fossil fuels, emissions that create the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. CO2 holds heat in the atmosphere and is considered the thermostat of climate change. Even with ocean uptake, CO2 levels in the atmosphere have increased by more than 35 percent to more than 400 parts per million since the beginning of the Industrial Age.

According to Beadling, if we can better understand what those climate changes are going to be and how our oceans are going to react to all this warming, then we can have better projections of what we are facing from climate change and how to better prepare. Right now, the ocean is doing us a favor taking in all this carbon. But the question is for how long will it be able to do so and how fast might the Earth warm once ocean uptake of carbon slows or halts all together?

Looking ahead, a lot is uncertain for climate researchers such as Beadling. But, considering the work being done here, a big global database with a few thousand floating robots could eventually do the trick.

Photo at top: Beadling and colleagues prepare to toss the SOCCOM “robot” float in the ocean. The float will be collecting information for around 7 years. (Courtesy of Becki Beadling)

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