Wallace Smith Broecker, the scientist who raised early alarms about climate change by popularizing the term “global warming” has died. He was 87. The Columbia University professor and researcher died on Monday at a New York City hospital.
He introduced the term “global warming” into common use with a 1975 article that correctly predicted rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere would lead to warming. He later became the first person to recognize what he called the Ocean Conveyor Belt, a global network of currents affecting everything from air temperature to rain patterns.
Broecker said his studies suggested that the conveyor is the “Achilles heel of the climate system” and a fragile phenomenon that can change rapidly for reasons not understood. It would take only a slight rise in temperature to keep water from sinking in the North Atlantic, he said, and that would bring the conveyor to a halt. Broecker said it is possible that warming caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases could be enough to affect the ocean currents dramatically.
“We live in a climate system that can jump abruptly from one state to another,” Broecker told the Associated Press in 1997. By dumping into the atmosphere huge amounts of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels, “we are conducting an experiment that could have devastating effects.”
Broecker was born in Chicago in 1931 and grew up in suburban Oak Park. He received the National Medal of Science in 1996 and was a member of the National Academy of Science. He joined Columbia’s faculty in 1959. He was known in science circles as the “Grandfather of Climate Science” and the “Dean of Climate Scientists.”