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by Erica M. Peterson
Dec 03, 2008

Climate science pioneer Wallace. Broecker joins the discussion during a a retreat of scientists at the Comer Foundation conference this fall.

Climate scientist Wallace Broecker, the man credited with coining the phrase “global warming” in the 1970s, contributed to the pivotal concept of just how swiftly and abruptly the earth’s climate can change.

For his research, he received the prestigious Swiss-Italian Balzan Prize and one million Swiss francs at a ceremony in Rome on Nov. 21, one of four outstanding scientists, artists and humanitarians honored from across the world. They join the ranks of previous winners, including Mother Teresa and Pope John XXIII.

Jonathan Love/Medill Climate science pioneer Wallace. Broecker joins the discussion during a a retreat of scientists at the Comer Foundation conference this fall.
Jonathan Love/Medill
Climate science pioneer Wallace. Broecker joins the discussion during a a retreat of scientists at the Comer Foundation conference this fall.

In September, the International Balzan Foundation telephoned Broecker, 77, to tell him he had won this year’s prize for his climate change research as a scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. The winners also include Italian artist Maurizio Calvesi, American philosopher Thomas Nagel and Australian cancer researcher Ian Frazer.

Broecker didn’t expect to win the award. “I never knew much about this,” he said. “All I knew was that it had a hell of a lot of money associated with it.”

Then he found out the exact amount: $1 million Swiss francs, or about $885,000, bestowed on each of only four people each year for long-term achievements in their fields. The prize has been awarded since 1956 and goes to those working in the humanities, medicine and physical or natural sciences.

The prize honors Broecker, originally from Oak Park, Ill., “for his extraordinary contributions to the understanding of climate change through his discoveries concerning the role of the oceans and their interactions with the atmosphere, as well as the role of glacial changes,” the Balzan Foundation announced. “His contributions have been significant in understanding both gradual and abrupt climate change.”

For Broecker, the decision about how to use the money was a simple one. Over the past several years, he and the observatory benefited from substantial support from the Comer Science and Education Foundation, created by Lands’ End founder Gary Comer to fund abrupt climate change research.

Through an $18 million gift, Comer and his foundation built a state-of-the art-geochemistry building at the observatory campus in Palisades, N.Y. But Comer also reached out across the climate research community by giving leading scientists funds to hire and mentor graduate and postdoctoral fellows. Broecker helped identify many of these “mentors.”

Broecker and Comer even collaborated on four field trips, becoming close colleagues and friends. “Comer’s enthusiasm rejuvenated” him as he was contemplating retirements, Broecker notes in his latest book, “Fixing Climate.”

Now, some 90 percent of Broecker’s prize will go into a separate non-profit foundation he has created to carry on Comer’s legacy. His foundation will continue Comer’s model of providing fellowships that will bring talented young scientists into areas of climate change research.

The Balzan Foundation requires that only half of the prize money be used to sponsor research, especially by young scientists. “We will use it for young people, but we will try to use it in the best possible way,” Broecker said. Comer died in 2006 and his children Stephanie and Guy oversee the Comer Foundation and their father’s legacy of supporting climate change research.

“Gary’s been so good to me and to Lamont and to all of us that it was nice to have the opportunity to give something back to the source of so many good things,” Broecker said.

Broecker earned his PhD at Columbia and joined the faculty at Lamont in 1959, investigating ocean cycles and later unraveling mechanisms that pointed to abrupt climate change, making the momentous contribution that climate doesn’t always shift smoothly. “One of a scientist’s biggest thrills is to cheat nature out of one of its secrets,” Broecker said.

His work made him a pioneer in the fledgling field of climate research and he remains best-known for his discovery of the ocean conveyer belt.

The ocean conveyer belt is a naturally-occurring circulatory system of currents that keep the earth’s climate in balance by moving warm water from the Caribbean to the North Atlantic. There, heavier cold, salt water sinks and pushes back southward, channeling heat ultimately through all the earth’s oceans.

However, this thermohaline circulation – as the conveyor belt is called — could be altered. If too many glaciers melt, flooding fresh water into the Artic, the water would become diluted, less salty and unable to sink. It’s happened before. Cutting off the conveyor as the glaciers retreated from the last great ice age triggered another mini-ice age a mere 13,000 years ago, Broecker theorizes.

Though the discovery of a potential ice age trigger was among the pinnacles of his career, he notes that the likelihood of such an event happening now is very slim. There isn’t enough ice on earth at this time to dilute the Atlantic. Today, he is more focused on how to stop the planet’s rapid warming, accelerated by human use of fossil fuels. He sees global warming as the ultimate experiment in human impact on the planet.

“It’s an experiment that nobody would have permitted but we’re doing it and eventually, hopefully, we’ll stop doing it. But we’re not going to stop for a long time,” he said. “People are going to look back and say, ‘You made a mess.’”

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