Earth Institute Profiles

Wallace S. Broecker

Newberry Professor of Geology

Wally Broecker

To his colleagues, peers and admirers he is a genius and a pioneer, the Grandfather of Climate Science. And to his countless friends – most of whom also happen to be colleagues, peers and admirers – he is simply Wally.

Broecker is arguably one of the world’s greatest living geoscientists. For more than half a century, his major research interest has been the ocean’s role in climate change. He was among the pioneers in radiocarbon and isotope dating – the quintessential processes for creating maps of the Earth’s past climate fluctuations since as early as the Pleistocene period. He was also the first person ever to recognize the Ocean Conveyor Belt (which he named), arguably the most important discovery in the history of oceanography and its critical relation to climate.

Broecker’s studies regarding biogeochemical cycles of carbon and the influence of climate change on polar ice and ocean sediments have earned him decades of international attention. Among many other awards, he was granted the Vetlesen Prize in 1987, the National Medal of Science by Bill Clinton in 1996 and the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement in 2002. Most recently, he has been in the limelight for his cutting-edge work in carbon sequestration with his Earth Institute colleagues, including geophysicist Dr. Klaus Lackner, director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy.

Broecker and Lackner are leaders in the war on anthropogenic climate change and both advocate drastic changes in people’s carbon emissions and the dire need for large-scale carbon sequestration. In his latest in a decades-long series of highly-acclaimed books, Fixing Climate, Broecker and science writer Robert Kunzig make a compelling case for carbon “scrubbers” to cycle carbon out of the atmosphere and back into the earth’s crust where it belongs. Speaking strictly in terms of its climate change implications, the book has an interesting message: “Burning fossil fuels is not bad, what is bad is dumping the waste into the atmosphere.”

While Broecker is an advocate of utilizing alternative fuels, he is realistic about humanity’s addiction to fossil fuels – especially in industrializing nations. He was recently featured on the BBC’s Hardtalk, where he spoke of his unlikely climate optimism in the face of rapidly industrializing nations: “I think we have an option and the option is to let them industrialize but take care of the problem by capturing and storing the CO2.” He says that “we’re going to have to learn to capture the CO2 and bury it – just like we learned to collect and put away garbage [and] sewage… We’ve taken over stewardship of the planet and with that we have the responsibility to take care of it.”

At Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory he works toward manufacturing and developing carbon sequestering devices: safe, silo-like instruments designed to neutralize fossil fuel emissions. A pioneer in the face of overwhelming skepticism, Broecker has been warning the world of climate change since the 1970s, thanks to his prescient comprehension of atmospheric carbon dioxide accumulation. His research continues today as he studies planktonic foraminifera in the world’s oceans to gain a better understanding of the triggers of abrupt climate change.

Regarding the science behind his lifelong quest to understand abrupt climate change, he writes:

The climate system has jumped from one mode of operation to another in the past. We are trying to understand how the earth's climate system is engineered, so we can understand what it takes to trigger mode switches. Until we do, we cannot make good predictions about future climate change... Over the last several hundred thousand years, climate change has come mainly in discrete jumps that appear to be related to changes in the mode of thermohaline circulation. We place strong emphasis on using isotopes as a means to understand physical mixing and chemical cycling in the ocean, and the climate history as recorded in marine sediments.

Wally Broecker is the Newberry Professor of Geology in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. He is also a scientist at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and an Academic Committee member of the Earth Institute. An alumnus of Columbia, Broecker has been a fixture in the Columbia community for over 55 years – he received his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from Columbia University. His earned his doctorate in geology in 1958 and was appointed to the Columbia faculty in 1959.