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Climate Science Pioneer Celebrates 50 Years of Big Ideas

Wally Broecker on a trip to study climate change in Greenland.
Columbia University geochemist Wally Broecker changed the way scientists think about our world

Wally Broecker isn't a household name, unless, of course, your household happens to include a climate scientist. Though he may be less well-known than the likes of NASA's James Hansen, Broecker is nonetheless an Olympian figure in his field. Studying and teaching geochemistry at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Broecker was one of the first to suggest that human-induced global warming might be a problem, that the earth's climate system was prone to abrupt change, and that the oceans play a major role in that process by mixing and transporting heat around the world. Some even credit him with coining the term "global warming." True or not, he was certainly one of the first scientists to grasp the potential impact of climate change, testifying before a Congressional subcommittee chaired by then-Senator Al Gore in 1984.

Today Broecker celebrates a half-century on the Columbia University faculty with a modest gathering of old friends and colleagues (or as modest as you can get when a former vice president -- Gore again -- provides a video tribute for the occasion). At a time when science -- and particularly climate science -- is under attack on what can seem like every front, Broecker represents something worth celebrating: a scientist who is open to new ideas and new ways of thinking, who has pushed his field in new directions and changed the way we look at our world, but who is never willing to compromise when it comes to the science.

As an undergraduate, Broecker attended Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian school in the western suburbs of Chicago that counts Billy Graham among its alumni. Early on, a mentor dissuaded him from pursuing a career in the insurance industry, instead encouraging him to take an internship at Lamont, Columbia's earth science campus on the Palisades overlooking the Hudson River. He did and then never left. Broecker's immersion in Lamont's tight-knit community of scientists led him to "cash in his religious chips," as he once put it, for a deep-seated skepticism of both accepted theories and untested ideas. That approach helped Broecker advance new ways of thinking about old problems.

Early in his career, as a graduate student working under J. Lawrence Kulp, a pioneer in the field of radiocarbon dating, Broecker questioned one of Kulp's assumptions about the rate at which water circulates between shallow and deep regions of the world's oceans. The assumption was wrong: Broecker demonstrated that it took hundreds of years for water to complete a circuit, not 10,000 years, as Kulp had suggested. As a result, scientists began to rethink the role of the oceans in climate, giving rise to the "global ocean conveyor" model of heat transport. Today, it's recognized as a fundamental driving force behind the world's climate that plays an important role in climate modeling and other fields of study.

Though he has advanced our understanding of the global climate system as much as any other living scientist, Broecker remains a "skeptic" in the best sense of the word, always on the lookout for shoddy methods, lazy analysis, and flawed assumptions. During my years studying and working at Lamont, I attended dozens of geochemistry seminars and colloquia; Broecker was almost always there, a slightly stooped figure with wiry gray hair sitting in the first row, willing to question and challenge anything the speaker had to say -- sometimes vehemently. Young or old, if you are going to call yourself a scientist, Broecker will hold you to everything that the title implies. It's not a right conferred by a Ph.D. committee; it's a responsibility that you agree to live up to every time you walk into a lab or stand in front of a classroom or put your name on a paper.

At one particular seminar, Broecker took exception to a small part of the speaker's analysis and verbally pinned him to the wall. When the uncomfortable dressing down was over, someone chuckled and shrugged, saying simply, "That's just Wally being Wally."
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Ken Kostel is a freelance science writer based in New York, where he lives as sustainably as possible with his (first and only) wife of 14 years.

Very interesting article. Congratulations Professor, you have contributed so much to our understanding of oceans.