Dr. Wallace Broecker—lovingly called “Wally” by his coworkers, friends, and family—never wanted to be known as the prophet of climate change. He was the prank-playing, puzzle-loving, New Balance-wearing, colorblind, dented-Toyota-owning, dyslexic, opinionated rock of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Broecker saw the big picture.
Broecker was a nationally renowned climate scientist who won the most prestigious awards in his field. He passed away on February 18 at 87 years old. The Washington Post, the New York Times, and other major news sources covered Broecker’s academic achievements, including the fact that he popularized the term “global warming,” but they missed a crucial part of him: the immense influence he had on the lives of others.
Every so often, he would put climate puzzles out in Lamont cafeteria, posing questions like, “Where did all that carbon dioxide go during the ice ages?” He often offered cash rewards to those who could answer them. In his most personalized puzzle, he offered money to whoever could dig up an earlier citation of the term global warming. One of his students succeeded.
Broecker grew up in Oak Park, Illinois—a town which feels like a suburb of Chicago—where his father worked at a gas station, and his mother was a homemaker. Broecker, who owned two identical red-checkered flannel shirts and wore them to school every day, passed time playing ball in the alleyway between his house and his neighbor’s. His classmates teased him because they thought he only owned one shirt. Broecker avoided red-checkered shirts for the rest of his life.
Broecker spent three years at Wheaton College, a private evangelical school in Illinois. The summer before his senior year, his mentor convinced him to work at Lamont, so he spent the season in New York working in the radiocarbon lab. A few nights before Broecker was due to return to Illinois, his mentor said Broecker should stay at Columbia, so Broecker transferred his senior year with just a handwritten transcript—and the rest is history.
From there, he taught and researched at Lamont. He studied how oceans and climate change are intertwined, specifically how the “Great Ocean Conveyor”—currents in the oceans which move heat, water, and nutrients around the world—triggered ice ages. He went on several cruises around the world collecting sediment cores. He won numerous prestigious prizes. He was at the forefront of his field, partially because he grew up alongside it.
One doesn’t need to look farther than Broecker’s office to understand who he was to the Lamont community. His office sits at the front of Lamont’s geochemistry building, situated on the second floor, right above the main entrance to the building. The room protrudes from the rest of the building and, since its walls are made of glass, it allowed Broecker to assume the role of Lamont watchdog. Visible from the outside of the building is Broecker’s wooden captain wheel, attached to the wall at the front of his office, reminiscent of the many ocean cruises he and his colleagues went on together.
Entering his office feels like reading his diary. His most vivid descriptions, the characterizations of humor, the essence of his personability all come to life.
Looking out the window of Broecker’s office, Jerry McManus, a former student and close friend of Broecker’s, recalls his own return to Lamont after 10 years working at Woods Hole, an oceanic institute in Massachusetts. As McManus walked up to the doors of the new geochemistry building, Broecker burst through them to welcome him. Broecker had spotted McManus from his office and raced down the stairs to beat him to the door.
Broecker’s office is filled with as many stories as it is items. He wrote emails by hand, and his wife and assistant Elizabeth Clark typed up his messages and printed the responses. To poke fun at Broecker, George Kukla, a climate scientist at Lamont who passed away in 2014, bought him a LeapFrog computer. Moanna St. Clair, an administrator at Lamont, thinks Broecker gave it to one of his grandchildren. McManus remembers that Broecker used to say, “When computers do better science than I do, then I'll use one.”
Just as he didn’t use his computer to do research, he wasn’t the type to spend days with his nose in a book—when he wanted answers, he called or spoke directly to his coworkers, whose numbers he kept in Rolodexes. He pieced together his science through conversations; for Broecker, interpersonal relationships and research went hand in hand.
His bookshelves and drawers are filled with relics of a humorous past. There are textbooks, cardboard cutouts, statues, and tools. A drawer full of paperclips. Each time Broecker handed someone a stack of papers, he would attach six or seven paper clips as well, just to lighten his collection.
Broecker knew how to keep up with his community. Especially in the old geochemistry building, he’d make his rounds from office to office, asking about more personal matters: How are your kids? What happened in that meeting in Germany? When are you going on that cruise? Even the water cooler emphasized his importance in the Lamont social scene: Placed right outside his office, you couldn’t hydrate without catching a word or two with him. It was a clever way to maintain relationships.
Cracking open his memoir, the first thing you’ll notice about Broecker is his dedication to friendship. In A Geochemist in His Garden of Eden, Broecker starts by thanking three of his mentors and then three of his closest friends—expressing that he doesn’t have the space to thank everyone, though he points the reader to the appendix where they can find 51 people he mentored, students he considers his inspiration. Ultimately, the acknowledgements take up the same amount of space as a regular chapter.
Dr. Bärbel Hönisch, an associate earth science professor at Lamont, recalls Broecker wandering down the hall. He would often stop at her office to chat, but there was a certain objective to these talks, something Broecker hoped to gain. He always wanted to learn something. “I could always tell whether he got what he wanted or he did not because, if he did, he would turn left and go back to his office,” Hönisch tells me, “and, if not, then he would turn right and go to [Jerry] or Bob.”
Dr. Dorothy Peteet, a Lamont scientist and professor, describes her close friendship with Broecker. She, Broecker, and Kukla made up a troublesome trio, with Kukla often instigating Broecker’s playful side.
Everybody at Lamont seems to remember the laundry list of Broecker’s classic pranks. They’ve spread like tall tales. In fact, the stories were perpetuated by Broecker himself. Nearly everybody I talk to knows the story of Broecker and Peteet removing Kukla’s tires from his car and replacing them with cement blocks—Kukla had important, high-profile visitors from China coming that same day. Peteet recalls hiding with Broecker in the bushes, waiting for Kukla to realize what happened. When Kukla emerged from the building, he was fuming. Broecker and Peteet jumped from the bushes, laughing like children.
Broecker took mud from a core on a cruise, molded it into a brownie, and fed it to a coworker. He brought a blow-up doll to the hospital to scare his nurses. When Broecker took an interview he didn’t want to give, he demanded it be in his office, and pressed a button on a statue which caused its pants to fall off in the background as he answered questions about climate change. The list goes on.
Broecker knew how to take the simple moments and configure them into something spectacular, something that would outlive him, something that would exist in its own right.
As I stand in Broecker’s office, McManus realizes that his first-ever ocean cruise was Broecker’s last. There is a certain nostalgia—one tinged with both excitement and despair—in his tone. He points at a photograph of a geyser on Broecker’s bookshelf.
“We went to Iceland together, and that's the original geyser,” McManus remembers. “It was incredible—as a Ph.D. student—to go and stand next to this incredible force of nature that could explode with incredible energy and any moment—”
“We’re talking about Wally?” Catanzaro interrupts, laughing.
“—and then the geyser was there too,” McManus finishes, grinning a toothy smile toward Catanzaro. “Don’t step on my joke!”
“You were taking too long!”
“Timing is everything.”
Whenever I mention that I want to understand Broecker’s personal side, people point me in the direction of Elizabeth Clark—nobody knew him better than she did. Broecker and Clark met at Hungarian Pastry Shop. By this time, Broecker had lost his first wife, and Clark was divorced. It was wintertime, and Clark was reading a book about malaria.
“Why are you reading about malaria? It’s 17 degrees outside,” Broecker said.
Clark explained she was taking a medical anthropology course at Columbia. They got to talking, and after Clark expressed her desire for a change in her life, Broecker suggested she interview for a job at Lamont. Soon after, Clark became employed as Broecker’s assistant, and after years of friendship, their relationship evolved into something more.
Clark wears blue jeans, a blue shirt, and a darker blue vest. She fidgets with her blue table mat as she tells me about their relationship. She and Broecker eloped in Reno. They didn’t tell anyone before it happened. Broecker proposed the idea as Clark sat in her Lamont office, preparing for their hydrology meeting in Nevada. They took an afternoon during their trip to go to a courthouse, get a marriage license, and hire a justice of the peace to do a quick service. There were no rings, religion, or name changes (“I would never change my name to Broecker because Clark is so easy. You can't beat Clark, right?”). She tells me, “It was only five minutes, and it was beautiful!”
Clark consistently refers to herself and Broecker as dull, perhaps because they didn’t see value in wedding rings or material things. Broecker hated shopping so much that he would even wait outside the grocery store if he ever accompanied Clark to pick up milk and eggs. Their ceremony reflects their simplicity, but not dullness: “We know that we got married on a lark, with full pleasure, in less than an hour,” she reflects, “because we went back to the car and there was another five or 10 minutes left on the parking meter.”
If you’ve ever seen the first 10 minutes of Pixar’s Up, you understand the gist of Clark and Broecker’s relationship. “24/7—literally—we would ride together to work, eat breakfast together, still eat lunch together, and go back and forth to each other’s office about this or that, and then come home together, and eat dinner together, and watch a movie together, and go to bed,” Ms. Clark reflects. “We did that day after day after day after day.”
In their free time, Clark and Broecker would work on crossword and jigsaw puzzles. Clark reminisces about the beauty of those moments, the allowance for silence, the closeness you create without speech. “I think more couples should just sit at the table and do picture puzzles together,” she tells me as we sit at her kitchen table, looking over the Hudson river. “You know?”
After being a student, he began teaching at a very young age—around 20. Clark describes how he would start classes wiping blackboards and preparing the lesson. Students would look around, waiting for the professor to enter the room—until a young Broecker turned around and began teaching them the basics of geochemistry.
His students would line up in the hallway to speak with him. McManus recalls the crowded space outside Broecker’s office. Despite the number of people waiting their turn, Broecker never rushed a conversation—most ended up being about 45 minutes. They took place at a large wooden table in the middle of the room.
In conversations like these, students often had mixed feelings. Broecker made his opinions and feelings very obvious, so if he liked what you were doing, you had his support—but if he didn’t, you would have to look elsewhere.
Hönisch recalls how Broecker initially campaigned against her after hearing her speak at a meeting. Eventually, Broecker came around and supported her, but his opinion of her work oscillated back and forth according to how he felt about her science. “It wasn't a personal thing,” she noted. “He didn't hold any personal grudges, he just held scientific grudges. He could make careers, and he could break careers.”
Even McManus admitted that Broecker didn’t originally believe McManus would go far. Broecker had considered McManus an immature “ne’er-do-well,” someone who needed to do some growing. But McManus eventually changed Broecker’s mind and, once Broecker’s opinion changed, the doors opened wide for McManus. “You should come see me more often,” Broecker said. So McManus did. Soon enough, they were collaborating on projects and would eventually become lifelong friends.
This was Broecker’s nature. He made it very clear how he felt and whether those feelings were positive or negative, never hiding his beliefs. Although it could be tough to be criticized like that, many of his students said they ultimately appreciated the challenge.
In every interview for this piece, there was a common linguistic tendency: a painful alternation between past and present tense. But Broecker isn’t gone yet, not from the Lamont community, not from his people. It feels inconclusive.
To McManus, Broecker’s death is hard to internalize because, historically, he had always overcome obstacles. “I think that intellectually, everybody knew that Wally couldn’t last forever. His body had been failing for years, and he’s had health issues over decades, and he’d always bounced back, ” McManus tells me. “So it just seemed like Wally was always there.”
Recovery became habit, and it became expected. His strength was a part of his livelihood. That’s why the end didn’t feel like the end.
In fact, at first, some weren’t even convinced that he was gone. Dr. Aaron Putnam, a past student of Broecker, believed Broecker had pranked the National Academy of Sciences by faking his own death until Putnam spoke with Clark and realized the truth. Broecker passed away due to congestive heart failure. Putnam describes how it set in for him: the giant void it left, the absence of his gravitational force, the loss of such a big thinker.
Today, Broecker’s office remains as it was, his glass walls spotlessly unsmudged, and his captain’s wheel intact. His printed emails remain on his desk, while photographs with Al Gore, his students, the Pope, his daughter, Bill Clinton, and his coworkers adorn the walls. He chose the assortment himself. His humor remains in his knickknacks, his cardboard cutouts, his email signatures (“cheers” when happy, and “no cheers” when disgruntled—University President Lee Bollinger is among those who has received a “no cheers”). Everything is simultaneously still and alive.
As we sit together on the bumpy bus ride back to Columbia, basking in the lightness, fresh air, and trees gifted to us by the Lamont campus, McManus recites the words that he and his colleagues use to describe the captain’s wheel: “The symbolism is inescapable.”
Enjoy leafing through our eleventh issue!