Photo of Wallace S. Broecker

Wallace S. Broecker

  • National Medal of Science
  • Physical Sciences

For his pioneering contributions to the understanding of the circulation of the oceans, global carbon cycle, and the record of global climate changes.”

Wallace S. Broecker is considered by many to be the ‘grandfather of climate science.’ For more than half a century, his major research interest has been the ocean’s role in climate change. He was quoted in 1998 saying “”the climate system is an angry beast and we are poking it with sticks,” when discussing human impact on the climate system, through emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. Broecker’s understanding and theories of climate change were ahead of his time.

Broecker is most known for developing the idea of a global “conveyor belt” linking the circulation of the global ocean. He was one of the earliest researchers to advance the view that rapid warming and cooling of the Earth’s climate can transform the planet in a human lifetime or even a decade. Broecker linked those abrupt changes in Earth’s history to the on-again, off-again action of vast, deep ocean currents that transport great amounts of heat around the planet, shaping the climate of much of the globe.

Chemical clues of past changes extracted from ocean and lake sediment and ice sheets have proliferated, supporting his initial conclusions. He was also 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.

By Jen Santisi