Wallace Broecker Wins (Yet Another) Top Prize

January 16, 2009


Credit: The Earth Institute at Columbia University

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Kim Martineau


Climate Scientist Who Sounded Early Warnings Is Still At Work

Wallace S. Broecker, a geochemist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, has received the newly founded Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Climate Change Research, one of the world’s largest science prizes. An international jury awarded Broecker the $527,000 prize, from Spain’s Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria Foundation, for sounding early alarms about climate change, and for his pioneering work on how the oceans and atmosphere interact.

“Prof. Broecker has been an eloquent educator and a forceful champion of efforts to address the risk of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities,” the jury said in announcing the award Tuesday.

One of the first mentions of the term “global warming” appeared in a 1975 Science paper authored by Broecker, warning that the world was on the brink of a pronounced warming. “It’s been warming ever since,” he said in a recent interview. In later research, he showed how heat is transported around the world by massive ocean currents that interact with the atmosphere—the so-called great ocean conveyer—and how such mechanisms may be connected to abrupt changes in climate.

At 78, Broecker has claimed most of the top honors in his field, including the 1996 National Medal of Science and, most recently, the $885,000 Balzan Prize, given for science in the service of humanity. He continues to teach, write, do research and push for ways to address human-caused global climate change. He has spent his entire career at Lamont-Doherty, where he worked one summer in college and earned his Ph.D.

“There is no other geoscientist of our generation who has made his impact on our understanding of climate,” said Lamont-Doherty director G. Michael Purdy. “If humanity is to ever overcome this desperate crisis we have right now with rising CO2 levels, it’s going to be in large part because of the new knowledge and understanding that Wally Broecker gave the world.”

“Wally’s inquisitive mind [seeks] solutions to climate puzzles ranging from the causes of abrupt climate change in the past to the consequences in the foreseeable future of the rising concentrations of anthropogenic greenhouse gases,” said Lamont-Doherty geochemist Robert Anderson, writing on the Columbia Climate Center’s blog.

In his recent book, Fixing Climate, coauthored with science journalist Rob Kunzig, Broecker elaborates on his ideas for removing carbon dioxide from the air by capturing it and storing it underground—a problem that several groups of Lamont scientists are working on. Many others view alternative fuels as a more promising way to solve the climate change problem, but Broecker says he is realistic: China and other developing countries are not about to stop burning coal or other fossil fuels as long as those are the cheapest form of energy, he said. “Poor people aren’t going to go to photovoltaic cells when they can burn fossil fuels. So we’ve got to cope with it.”

The foundation created its Frontiers of Knowledge Awards last year to recognize excellence in the arts, science and technology. The climate-change research award is the first of eight prizes to be announced this year. Broecker said he does not plan to spend the prize money on himself. Rather, he will donate it to what he sees as a worthy cause: more research on climate change.