It was the mid-1980s, at a meeting in Switzerland, when Wally Broecker’s ears perked up. Scientist Hans Oeschger was describing an ice core drilled at a military radar station in southern Greenland. Layer by layer, the 2-kilometer-long core revealed what the climate there was like thousands of years ago. Climate shifts, inferred from the amounts of carbon dioxide and of a form of oxygen in the core, played out surprisingly quickly — within just a few decades. It seemed almost too fast to be true.
Broecker returned home, to Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and began wondering what could cause such dramatic shifts. Some of Oeschger’s data turned out to be incorrect, but the seed they planted in Broecker’s mind flowered — and ultimately changed the way scientists think about past and future climate.
A geochemist who studied the oceans, Broecker proposed that the shutdown of a major ocean circulation pattern, which he named the great ocean conveyor, could cause the North Atlantic climate to change abruptly. In the past, he argued, melting ice sheets released huge pulses of water into the North Atlantic, turning the water fresher and halting circulation patterns that rely on salty water. The result: a sudden atmospheric cooling that plunged the region, including Greenland, into a big chill. (In the 2004 movie The Day After Tomorrow, an overly dramatized oceanic shutdown coats the Statue of Liberty in ice.)
It was a leap of insight unprecedented for the time, when most researchers had yet to accept that climate could shift abruptly, much less ponder what might cause such shifts.
Broecker not only explained the changes seen in the Greenland ice core, he also went on to found a new field. He prodded, cajoled and brought together other scientists to study the entire climate system and how it could shift on a dime. “He was a really big thinker,” says Dorothy Peteet, a paleoclimatologist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City who worked with Broecker for decades. “It was just his genuine curiosity about how the world worked.”
Broecker was born in 1931 into a fundamentalist family who believed the Earth was 6,000 years old, so he was not an obvious candidate to become a pathbreaking geoscientist. Because of his dyslexia, he relied on conversations and visual aids to soak up information. Throughout his life, he did not use computers, a linchpin of modern science, yet became an expert in radiocarbon dating. And, contrary to the siloing common in the sciences, he worked expansively to understand the oceans, the atmosphere, the land, and thus the entire Earth system.
By the 1970s, scientists knew that humans were pouring excess carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, through burning fossil fuels and cutting down carbon-storing forests, and that those changes were tinkering with Earth’s natural thermostat. Scientists knew that climate had changed in the past; geologic evidence over billions of years revealed hot or dry, cold or wet periods. But many scientists focused on long-term climate changes, paced by shifts in the way Earth rotates on its axis and circles the sun — both of which change the amount of sunlight the planet receives. A highly influential 1976 paper referred to these orbital shifts as the “pacemaker of the ice ages.”
Ice cores from Antarctica and Greenland changed the game. In 1969, Willi Dansgaard of the University of Copenhagen and colleagues reported results from a Greenland ice core covering the last 100,000 years. They found large, rapid fluctuations in oxygen-18 that suggested wild temperature swings. Climate could oscillate quickly, it seemed — but it took another Greenland ice core and more than a decade before Broecker had the idea that the shutdown of the great ocean conveyor system could be to blame.