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

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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.

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