Wallace Smith Broecker


Wallace Smith Broecker was born November 29, 1931, in Chicago. He received his undergraduate degree in physics at Columbia College in 1953 and went on to receive his Ph.D. in geology from Columbia University in 1958. Dr. Broecker joined the Columbia faculty in 1959 and has remained there to this day (2004): since 1977 he has held the title of Newberry Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
As a young graduate student at Lamont, Broecker was inspired by the unrelenting drive of the late Maurice W. Ewing, the founder and the first director of the Observatory and a recipient of the first Vetlesen Prize, conferred in 1960. He began his scientific career with a study of the geological and oceanographic applications of radioactive carbon-14 – the beginning of a long path of research along which he has made many pioneering discoveries that have had a profound impact on our understanding of the ocean (past, present, and predicted), as well as of its role in global climate change. His research has been instrumental in developing the use of a wide range of geochemical tracers to describe the basic biological, chemical and physical processes that govern the behavior of carbon dioxide in the oceans, and its interactions with the atmosphere.
Dr. Broecker and his students employed a number of new approaches to study the Earth's climate, including the use of radiocarbon and other isotopes to date marine sediments. His studies provided the first definitive evidence that variations in the Earth's orbit around the sun and the resulting changes in insolation induce the glacial/interglacial climate cycle. Broecker also proposed the concept of a global oceanic “conveyor belt” of currents that transports heat around the globe – and can trigger abrupt shifts in the Earth's climate. He further identified the importance of changes in North Atlantic deep-water formation as a leading candidate for the cause of abrupt climate swings over the last few million years.
Broecker has also played an active role in the environmental policy debate. He has been a leading voice warning of the potential danger of increased greenhouse gases in Earth's atmosphere. He has written articles for the popular press, testified before Congressional committees and briefed officials at the highest levels of government in an effort to bring scientific insights to bear on policy issues.
A prolific researcher, teacher and author, Dr. Broecker has published over 400 scientific articles and is the author or coauthor of several textbooks, including Chemical Equilibria in the Earth (1971), Chemical Oceanography (1974), Tracers in the Sea (1982), and How To Build a Habitable Planet (1985). His two most recent books, The Glacial World According to Wally and Greenhouse Puzzles, were published in 1992 and 1994, respectively.
In 1979, Broecker was elected to membership in the National Academy of Sciences. He is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a Fellow of both the American and European Geophysical Unions. Among the many other honors he has received in recognition of his creative scientific studies are: both the Maurice W. Ewing and the Roger Revelle Medals of the American Geophysical Union, in 1979 and 1995, respectively; the Arthur L. Day Medal of the Geological Society of America, in 1984; the A. G. Huntsman Award of the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, in 1985; the Alexander Agassiz Medal of the National Academy of Sciences, in 1986; the V. M. Goldschmidt Medal of the Geochemical Society, in 1987; the Wollaston Medal from the Geological Society of London, in 1990; the National Medal of Science, conferred on him by President Bill Clinton in 1996; and the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, in 2002.