The joker who brought climate science out of the cold

Wally Broecker, when he registered for the Columbia University geology department in 1953. Credit: Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering Archives, Columbia University

Wally Broecker, when he registered for the Columbia University geology department in 1953. Credit: Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering Archives, Columbia University

In Los Angeles on September 1 1955, the day temperatures reached a new record of 43°C, Wally Broecker stood, sweating, giving the first scientific talk of his life. He could scarcely have guessed where the new method he was telling an audience of sleepy archaeologists about, called radiocarbon dating, would send him. But thanks in part to its messages from history he would help spawn the phrase ‘global warming’ and warn of its effects, which have today pushed temperatures even higher.

Wally grew up and started college on the outskirts of Chicago, Illinois, good at maths, but largely uninterested in science. But college-mate Paul Gast steered his career sciencewards by helping get him a summer job at the new Lamont Geological Observatory that Paul had recently started working at. On June 15, 1952 Wally and pregnant wife Grace drove 800 miles to the Palisades, New York mansion Columbia University had inherited, and set up the observatory in. There, in the basement, Wally worked in and soon practically ran Laurence Kulp’s radiocarbon lab. Rather than lose him at the end of the summer Laurence organised for Wally to transfer to Columbia and stay working at Lamont, where he has remained ever since.

Taking advantage of the slow decay of a rare, radioactive form of carbon – carbon-14 – radiocarbon dating was in its infancy. The balance between carbon-14 and the usual form, carbon-12, is quite steady in CO2 in the air, and also in living plants that take up the gas as they grow. But when plants die, the carbon-14 they contain slowly decays to nitrogen. Measuring the ratio between the two forms of carbon, scientists can tell when the plants had died. But in 1952, Laurence’s lab was getting inconsistent readings, with carbon-14 counts sometimes coming out too high, even after Wally had fixed a problem with the equipment. Then Wally realised the problem came from outside the lab. The extra counts were coming from nuclear tests that had recently started over Nevada.

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