Photo of Gene E. Likens

Gene E. Likens

  • National Medal of Science
  • Biological Sciences

For his discovery of acid rain in North America and his sustained leadership in developing the fields of ecology and ecosystem science.

Gene Likens on co-discovering “acid rain”

The perils of climate change might not be the fixture of American dinnertime conversation they are today without the pioneering work of Gene E. Likens. Likens, a multidisciplinary ecologist, played a key role in measuring the impact that burning fossil fuels has on the complex ecosystems like forests, lakes and streams. A graduate of Manchester University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Likens is best known for co-founding the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study while a professor at Dartmouth College. The study discovered acid rain in North America and definitively linked the phenomenon to the burning of fossil fuels. But Likens’ research was not limited just to air pollution. He studied biogeochemical cycles of ecosystems, broadening his field’s understanding of how matter moves through ecosystems, and devised long-term experiments that established a “guiding paradigm” for confronting environmental challenges, according to Oxford Journals. Likens’ work has influenced public discourse as well as government policy: his research strongly influenced the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, which greatly expanded federal control of toxic air pollutants.

By Sara Grossman