Captain Climate (Part 1) – Talking to Wally Broecker


Wally Broecker and me in his office at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (photo: Gisela Winckler)

I can hardly believe my luck: to interview the greatest climate researcher of our times! He is the climate science pioneer who invented the very expression global warming, who discovered the ocean conveyor belt and revolutionized our understanding of the ocean’s role in the world’s climate. He is the research innovator who has done groundbreaking research in the carbon cycle, and invented the radiocarbon method with others, which is one of our most valuable tools in dating climate events back in time. This is the man who carries on with climate research, passionately and sedulously, still today, at an age of 82!

His name is Wallace S. Broecker, but we all call him “Wally”. He loves homemade cookies and coffee, is always up for a chat and gives a warm welcome to anybody who knocks on his office door in need to discuss some science.

He is wise and charming, and yet so young in his ability to think and make connections. His career started in the late 1950s at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University in New York, and here he still keeps busy today, as Newberry Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

He is the heart of the Institute; Lamont without Wally would be like a sailboat without keel. Under his watch, climate research has navigated into deep seas. He has discovered things about the world’s oceans that are now the basis of knowledge for ongoing climate research. Always open for the fresh winds of new ideas, Wally helped to bring climate research into public attention. And this for a very good reason:  Global warming!

I am a little bit nervous; this interview is certainly a grandiose challenge in my very young career as a scientific writer. And even though I came to know Wally as unbelievably friendly and obliging during my six-month research stay at Lamont, I am still sitting in front of one of the world’s greatest minds in climate science! There is so much I can learn from him, so much I want to ask.

Wally, where do you find the good questions that lead you to the answers we all are looking for?

“Oh, I’m just good in putting together apples and oranges” Wally replies. His matchless career impressively shows that he has always been an ideas man. But you can’t really have good ideas without asking the good questions. As a dyslexic, his mind engages in listening and thinking rather than reading, he adds. And indeed, a look around in his office reveals the complete lack of something we all expect in any office nowadays: a computer! Instead, he writes every article by hand.

“When there is something that comes along that you know doesn’t quite fit, your mind jumps and does things it wouldn’t do ordinarily. You get better ideas when your mind gets jumbled. […] You got a way you’ve been thinking about something, and then somebody comes along and jars it, and says, hey, wait a minute, that’s not right!” The ability of putting together loose pieces of information to a bigger picture is one of the main qualities that make Wally so extraordinarily good in his field.

In the 1990s, guest lecturer J. Chappellaz showed the first methane record from Antarctic ice cores at Lamont hall. Before that lecture, researchers commonly correlated what we today call the Antarctic Cold Reversal (a period of colder climate conditions in Antarctica that interrupted the warming trend at the end of the last ice age) with the Younger Dryas (a period of climate deterioration in the Northern hemisphere before the transition into the Holocene). The methane records clearly contradicted this assumption. Wally immediately realized what that meant: There has to be a bipolar seesaw! And that was the birth of another groundbreaking idea that he contributed to climate science. The bipolar seesaw is the theory that the climate states of the two Polar Regions are in antiphase. That means when climate is warmer in the Arctic, conditions are colder in Antarctica, and vice versa.

Wally has published more than 450 scientific articles and ten books. He has passed on his knowledge by mentoring young scientists for more than sixty years. He has been awarded the National Medal of Science, along with several other prestigious awards.

What is your advice for us young scientists on scientific writing?

“Know what you write about. Write what you are comfortable with. Spend two hours every morning writing, and do that first.”

Wally reveals he has always been a morning person. His office is a big, bright room with windows covering one whole side. You get the impression of entering the bridge of a ship, an impression supported by the appearance of a helm next to his big wooden desk. Wally smiles encouragingly at me and waits for the interview to continue. He concentrates deeply, as he always does when someone addresses him with a question or a constructive comment. Before answering my questions, he takes a few moments to think, sitting calm and relaxed. Behind him, the wind plays with treetops on this sunny summer afternoon.

I want to know more about what he thinks about the state of climate research, he who has been there the entire voyage from the very beginning.

What is his opinion on global warming and CO2? We hoisted the sails with the industrialization; but in which direction are we sailing now? Does he see hope for our Earth to get off lightly, despite the devastating threat of warmer temperatures, rising sea levels, increasing natural hazards and, the chief cause of all this: our escalating hunger for energy?

His answers will come.

In – wait for it – Captain Climate – Talking to Wally Broecker Part II: CO2 and Global Warming


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Hella Wittmeier

I am a PhD candidate at the Department of Earth Science, University of Bergen, and the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research. I work with glacier and climate reconstructions of the Northern Polar Region, as part of the SHIFTS project.
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