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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Wallace Broecker by Spencer Weart on 1997 December 21,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Topics include his thesis work in radiocarbon dating; his relationship with Maurice Ewing and Lamont Geological Observatory; his work on in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s; CO2 research; Milankovitch cycles; GEOSECS; paleoclimatology; global warming; funding for research in climatology and oceanography; International Decade of Ocean Exploration; science and the U. S. government; the North Atlantic conveyor. Also includes discussion of politics and science; family background. Some prominently mentioned persons include: C. Emilian, Albert Gore, Jr., Frank Press, Willard Libby, Hans Suess.
[Part of tape missing - unrecorded] This is a new machine for me and I had one button pushed in. So, where does your salary come from over the years?
Well, professors at Lamont have always paid part of their own salaries [from grants]. Up until the 1980s. I paid my summer salary and probably three or four months of the academic year, Columbia paid the rest. There was no research money from anything except government grants. At Lamont, in the early days, Ewing doled out small amounts of money. He never gave us any because he didn't like us.
"Us" meaning whom?
"Us" meaning geochemistry.
Is that so? You didn't get money at Lamont?
Well, he didn't have very much. A couple of thousand a year. But we didn't get any. So we were totally self-sufficient.
So, Ewing just tolerated you because you were able to raise some grants and so on?
Well, no, I think Kulp was not under his control. I think he liked the idea of having a good geochemistry program. But he didn't get along with Kulp, so he didn't give us anything.
I see. So at what point did you get involved in raising — I mean, when you first came here presumably the money was raised by Kulp and the people you worked with?
All by Kulp.
And he had his regular sources I suppose?
Right. I guess toward 1960 I started to get my own grants. I took over some of his. By 1965 he was pretty much gone, and so it was my part of the program here.
So you were raising funds for yourself and for students also?
And raising them from where? What was the sequence?
Well, a lot from AEC at that time. Some from the National Science Foundation. Where else did we get —? I suppose those were the two main sources. Later on I got NASA money, and you know, EPA, EPRI, NOAA.
Let's start with AEC in particular, did you have relations with particular people at AEC, or particular programs?
There was a program that was related to fallout, Strontium-90, and that's where Kulp got a lot of his money. Some of that was related to arctic work, but I'm not sure what their justification was for studying the arctic. But, arctic and fallout. So they were interested in fallout over the ocean. It was pretty broad support. Then they narrowed in and decided they should work on the coastlines and abandoned the open ocean. At which point I lost a lot of that money, because I didn't want to work on the [continental] shelves. The money I had been getting went to Pierre Bisquet here in geochemistry, so at least it stayed in the building.
I see, they were interested in estuaries and so on, and how the fallout circulated?
They started the shelf program because there was an idea to locate reactors on artificial islands, out on the shelves. And they were worried about the fate of what they called PAN, plutonium, americium, and neptunian. Those programs developed lives of their own. That went on until — well, I guess it's still going on, in a sense, 30 years later.
But they lost interest in the deep sea circulation? Was that what you were doing for them?
Yeah. They decided that they wanted to do something more mission-oriented.
Then in the '70s the CO2 program started up again [at DOE]. I had fits with them when they did this. I said, "Look, the big problem is carbon dioxide." This was way back in 1970. And what we're doing is really learning about the uptake by the ocean. There was a gap in there between when I lost the money and they started the other program, the CO2 program, of several years.
Okay, let's get back to that then, because I definitely want to ask you some questions about these fits. Then you had to shift into NSF-funding primarily?
Well, yeah. When this happened we were just starting GEOSECS. And so we were getting a lot of money from the IDOE, International Decade of Ocean Exploration, which was NSF. I really cannot recall.
Do you have any of these old grant applications around? It would be very interesting to see them.
I'll have to ask Melana to look through them. There must be records at Columbia of all of the grants I've ever gotten.
I'll ask her. Because some of these grant applications are very interesting, to track what you had in mind at the time.
We did have a grant to do bomb radiocarbon in the atmosphere. The bomb radiocarbon was a really neat tracer. We could use it for a lot of things. And so we got funding for one thing or another over the years. But, it's such a patchwork of opportunities and it doesn't always match exactly what you're doing.
I pulled out a paper at random, and it's Broecker and VanDonk in 1970.  You listed a grant from the NSF, and from the AEC. And then you say, "Core lab support came from the ONR, and from the National Science Foundation. And then in 1990, the salt oscillator paper, I kind of pulled one out at random.  You listed support from Exxon, the NSF, and from the Swiss National Science Foundation.
Well, the Swiss thing was — which was that paper?
That was the salt oscillator paper.
We were doing dating in cooperation with two labs. The samples were prepared, converted to targets, in Bern, and measurements were made at the accelerator in Zurich. Exxon was giving us some money during that period. They gave me, like, $30,000 a year for five years, to do what I wanted.
How did that come about?
They were concerned about fossil fuel, CO2, and the greenhouse effect.
Oh, I see. And they wanted to have a finger in the CO2 thing. So, did you go to them, or did they come to you?
Well, they came to us when they started to do work on tankers. They wanted to do something with their tankers. The ones that went to the Persian Gulf, they were measuring P(CO2) in the surface water and the air. And they generally botched it all. They spent lots of money, and had incompetent people doing it. And we were trying to help them.
It was just that they had tankers going everywhere, so they said, "We might as well do something?"
Yeah, they wanted to do something. And then they decided to just support us with a little money, to do more of what we wanted. And then Mark Cain got more substantial money to start the Ocean Modeling program here from Exxon. About five years ago that all came to a grinding halt. I suppose it's because we didn't pay enough attention to them. I mean, they didn't feel they were getting enough out of it.
So, you didn't cultivate them and get them a lot of feedback?
I don't know if it would have made any difference.
Well, going back to these NSF grants, how did that typically work? Were there program officers that you interacted with closely?
Well, IDOE, of course, was a big joint program. And we did, I guess, interact. But you just send in proposals.
Was there interaction with the administration here, both at Lamont and Columbia? What role did they play in these grant proposals?
In general, nothing. The only one time — there was a woman who just, died this fall. Ruth Levinson. She was some kind of Vice-Provost at Columbia. She had been with AID, and she had friends in the government. She called up Shelby Tilford, who was a big wheel in NASA at the time, and got me like $180,000 a year, which I had for seven, eight, nine years — to do, again, what I wanted. She arranged that. I never would have gotten that on my own.
She just knew him from her earlier connections, her Washington connections?
Yeah. She was good at that. She'd call him up at breakfast and stuff, she could get away with things like that. Then, more recently, Crow started this NOAA consortium business, where he essentially lobbied, helped them get more money. And, as a result, they agreed to fund a Scripps-Lamont program on the role of the oceans in climate. That's been going on six or seven years now.
So they give you a pot of money to study the general thing and you decide? You yourself?
Well, we had six of us here at Lamont, and six at Scripps, and we divided the money up. We would go through phase one, and then they'd want it a little more closely integrated, so now we're in phase two. There's probably seven or eight people that receive money here.
So, you have committee meetings, to decide how to divide it up?
Was that similar in GEOSECS, when it came to dividing up the money, or was it a different kind of procedure?
Well, in GEOSECS everybody wrote proposals to the executive committee. We then made a package out of that. And modified some of the budgets. We would decide who could write proposals. To gain participation, people had to take part in test cruises, and prove they could do the things they were supposed to do well. Then we'd pick the best people, and then funded those people. Now, NSF, especially as the program went on, started to exert more management. They'd say, "We don't want to do that property, blah, blah, blah." But, pretty much, you know, we knew what their target number was. That we'd have like $2 million a year, or something like that. We knew how to, plan it. So it worked out pretty well.
I see. And with this NOAA consortium you pretty much have a pot of money, and can divide it up?
Pretty much. In that case, we submitted a bunch of things. The first manager we had went through and cut number of them out and said, "I don't think these are appropriate or strong." And then he gave us a figure, and we had to bring them in within that figure. NOAA had never done this before. So, there were a lot of fits, and starts, and things. But it's worked out fairly well.
Which group of NOAA is this? Which division of NOAA?
The Global Change.
Global Change. Uh huh. Okay, getting back again to this earlier period. The AEC, again, more or less had a sustaining grant to give you some money every year?
Yeah. Very much so.
Now with NSF, were there periods where you had very specific proposals?
Every NSF proposal is peer-reviewed, it has to be specific.
So these were quite specifically written?
No, you can't just say, "I'm going to work in these five areas." I've had, twice, accomplishment-based support from NSF. Which means you can write a more general proposal. I had one maybe ten years ago or so, I guess in the early '80s. And now I'm getting another one. It's just going to start in January, or sometime.
I see. But most of them are pretty specific, and you probably have specific graduate students in mind for a particular thing?
Usually, with graduate students, you could say you want to fund a graduate student and not name them. With post-docs, the reviewers preferred you name the post-doc, because they wanted to know if that person could really do the research or not.
And would the post-doc help in writing the proposal?
Yeah, I think in some cases. But I think normally I wrote them.
It must have taken a substantial amount of your time then?
No. You got so you could write them pretty quickly?
Yeah, I write fast.
How has it changed over time? Various people have reported to us changes in NSF, from when you first started writing proposals, until recently. Do you feel there has been many changes?
Well, they keep tightening up everything. The fraction of the proposals funded has pretty much steadily gone down. So, the competition is greater. It’s more regimented now than it was.
Regimented meaning what?
Well, it's only a certain number of pages, all the front material you have to have. If you haven't put in a report on a previous grant they won't fund the next one.
So the bureaucratization and regulation is increased?
Yeah. And I think it's made the funding more conservative. Because if you write a proposal for something really interesting, which is a little chancier, and you get some bad grades, then you won't get it. If you write something that's straight down the line, where clearly you can do the work and it's good work, you're more likely to get the money. Also, I think facilities support has gone down and down. Although instrumentation maybe has come back up a bit.
They have a special program for that now?
Yeah. And also Keck [Foundation] has helped a lot in our field, by matching NSF money.
I didn't know that.
Most instruments are fifty-fifty matched. NSF rarely will pay the whole cost. So either the institution or some other agency — and Keck, in geochemistry, has funded a lot.
I didn't realize that. I know it was for astronomy, but I didn't realize —.
Oh yeah, they've done very well in earth science.
I see. Well, what about some disappointments? Tell me about some grant proposals that you put in that didn't get funded.
I don't know, maybe I forget those.
There must have been some things you wanted to do and couldn't get money for.
We'd do it anyway. I remember having government auditors in here, and they're trying to — you tell them, to run a lab like this, where you're running off of a whole set of grants, you never know whether you can get a grant or you're not going to get a grant and you don't exactly know what things are going to cost. So you essentially pool the money in some sense. You try to be somewhat honest. But you can't really — could never — you'd just have to keep firing people and everything, since you'd have shortages, shortfalls, like a small business.
So you keep enough proposals in the pot that you feel you'd be able to support people one way or another?
Well, I have to confess, I'm not sure exactly who's going to fund this interview today. I have a few different grants running, too.
Well, you know how it is.
So you don't feel that there's some project that you really wanted to do and you just couldn't get the money for it?
No. I think I've always been well funded. I don't always have all the money I want. You know, I could always hire another person, or do this or that. But I don't think I've really been stopped in my tracks. I do what I think is the most important. Maybe that's the ends justifying the means, but I would suppose what the government's trying to do is get good research done. In many cases I got money to do things that I found were boring, and so I sort of cut them down. This is another thing, you have to write down a whole bunch of specific things that you're going to do. In some cases that works out to be a good thing to do. In other cases, you just say, "Why did I ever propose that?" And so I try to do a minimum of that, and use the money for something more interesting. That's part of the game.
In general, we've been well funded. And my career was during the golden years, where funding was by all these agencies, competition wasn't too great, we were a good lab, we basically got the money we needed and the instruments we needed.
Well then, since it was pretty much your choice which direction to pursue, is there anything generally you can say, how you thought about this, how you'd choose things? I mean, there's always a number of things to be done. Do you have any feeling for what the criteria are for what you'll choose to pursue?
There's so much serendipity. You're going along and some new idea comes up one way or another. You hear something at a meeting or a new instrument comes along. You have an idea and you turn your attention to that. I said once, in a thing that they wrote, that a good scientist has twenty-eight things on his platter.
Where was that? That's interesting.
There was an interview done by Lonny Lipset, which was published in the Columbia Today, or whatever — it's one of the Columbia alumni magazines. My picture was on the cover. It was three years ago I think — four years ago.
I don't know if we have that. I'll have to —
You should get that. But I said a good scientist has twenty-eight things. It's like doing a picture puzzle. You get stuck on one, and then it just sits there. And then along comes an idea, and you say, "Oh my God, that's a piece that fits right here." And you move ahead in that area. You've got, all these lines of research, and everything, in some sense, is a continuation of what you did before. I can't think of anything that's totally new, in the sense that it isn't related at all. Some people do really change their course of research. If you look at my Ph.D. thesis, I suppose most of the things I'm working on, I was already dabbling in at that time.
The person I've seen that was closest to this was Roger Revelle. He talked about things very much the same way. Do you think this is perhaps, characteristic of oceanography, or geophysics, generally?
Well, I don't know other fields so well. I know chemists tend to be much more conservative. Doing smaller projects and publishing much smaller units than we do. In our field, the information comes from so many sources and a person like me tries to use all those sources, that will keep you moving around.
That sounds really right on. That you have everything from the stuff, in the ooze to the atmosphere, and there's just a hundred different possible places to look at.
And you have basic things like bombs radiocarbon you can use in lots of different ways.
You can use one thing to study many, many different things.
Yeah. And paleo-climate, there's so many aspects of it.
Okay, so now let's pick up the DOE story. So along come the '70s and it looks like— was it ERDA then, or was it already DOE? Anyway, around that time, they started to get interested again?
The AEC was very generous to us. Then, I think DOE became more regimented. When they started the CO2 program, Koomanoff was the second guy, he came in after Carter, with the Reagan administration. I guess we had had under the previous guy, whatever his name was, funding to continue what we called TTO. That was in 1981. It was a second survey of the Atlantic. We did the Northern Atlantic in '81 and then we did the Equatorial Atlantic in '82, '83.
This was GEOSECS type?
Yes, very much.
What does TTO stand for?
Transient Tracers in the Ocean. They supported half of the North Atlantic program. And when Koomanoff came on, he didn't like that, because they had to pay ship time. The NSF has a ship budget, so the ships are paid for. So if you want to use a ship, that doesn't appear. But if another agency wants to use an NSF ship, they have to pay the daily fee, which is high. He felt that was a waste of money, and so he cut us off. It took us quite a while to recoup that funding, to run more programs, because we would get $2 1/2 million, and he was giving $1 ¼ million. He pulled it out. NSF, for those bigger items, have slots in the budget. So Koomanoff was a real disaster. I mean, this is a guy who could have run a cookie factory as well. He just didn't have any insight into the science at all. And he didn't like scientists, I don't think. I had run-ins with him, and I tried very hard to get rid of him. Eventually we did get rid of him, but it took a while.
This is getting up towards the later '80s?
This was during the Reagan administration.
Right. I have a quote here, in fact, that you said, "They're botching it. They wanted short-term answers. Koomanoff does not have a sufficiently deep understanding. He is obsessed with data banks." What's this with the data banks, what does that have to do with it?
He wanted to get all of the information into a data bank at Oak Ridge. Actually, it's worked out better than a lot of these. The problem with data banks is making sure the information that gets in there is correct. If it all gets mixed together, there's good data and bad data, it can cause difficulties, obviously. And he also was interested in China. He came at it from a totally different [direction] — so he encouraged connections with China.
Let's see, what else did they have? DOE had an atmospheric monitoring program, right?
Yeah, but I don't know if it was under the CO2 program. No, he probably funded some of Keeling's work. They were monitoring CO2. He [Koomanoff] ran the DOE's, CO2 program.
And that was the place I could get money. So that was a place I knew about. And he lasted quite a few years. But boy, they were tough years.
Because you felt that he was misallocating the money, not that he didn't have enough money in the program?
Well, he increased the amount of money in the program. Because people were getting more and more interested in the whole problem. I remember when Hunter was head of research down there. I asked for an appointment with him. No wait, first it was Trivelpiece. I wanted to get rid of Koomanoff, and I went down and I got an appointment with Trivelpiece. I have never had an hour like that in my life. This guy had the look on his face, "Well, you asked for it, what do you want to say to me?" Then he just shut up. He didn't show any emotion. He just sat there and listened. So it was a monologue for forty minutes.
And then, "Thank you very much?"
No, and then he said, "Your problem, Broecker, is that climate is yesterday's problem." This is true. This is what he said. He said, "Climate is yesterday's problem." And I thought, "Well that's interesting." And I said, "Well, what's today's problem?" He said, "Artificial food." "Artificial food." You know, feed the President from hydrocarbons in case there's a nuclear war. I mean, here we are, and I couldn't believe it. This guy's a smart guy. He still has important positions. But I swear to God, that's what he said. And there was no humor. This was serious stuff. So then later on, Koomanoff was still there, I went and met with Hunter. I remember having dinner with Hunter, Gordon MacDonald and one or two other people. We had a committee about the CO2 program. And at dinner, Hunter said to me, "Look Broecker, I've got to allocate my time in accordance with my budget." And he said, "The CO2 program is peanuts." He said, "For instance, tomorrow I've got to make a decision on buying a billion dollar laser." This was SDI. And I looked at him and I said, "Holy shit. This is ridiculous." I said, "You know, nuclear war is a problem I admit, but so is climate." And I said, "Don't look at budgets. Your budgets are the way they are because you're not thinking right. If you were thinking right, we'd be spending about the same amount. We'd take half of that billion for the laser, and put it into climate." And he sort of said he wasn't going to do anything about Koomanoff, because he had other things to do. I plunked forty bucks down on the table and said, "I can't stand to talk to you anymore. I'm going to go out to a book store and buy Profiles of Courage, and you should read that, and maybe you'll do something useful." And I walked out of the restaurant.
And then you were talking with Congressmen, and writing letters to Congress, and so on. Was that after this, or around the same time?
I don't know. It started in the Carter administration, I think. I remember on a July day having Percy, Dodd, Muskie, about seven influential senators sitting around a table. Instead of doing it hearings style. Discussing the CO2 problem.
An informal round table?
Yeah. Percy was worried about Illinois coal, and so forth. You know, it was very impressive. And then —.
You and some other people?
I think there were two or three of us, I don't remember who the other people were. Then of course, when Gore got into this. I went three or four different times.
And he sort of had tutorials, right?
They were much more tutorials, where he set up — I'll never forget during one of these hearings — I guess there was a House hearing as well. A woman came in late and sat down, and I didn't realize who she was. She said, "Well, Wally, what questions would you like to ask?" I realized she was Claudine Schneider from Rhode Island, and she was the wife of a former student here at Lamont, Eric Schneider, who worked for EPA. What I found is that they would invite you to talk, and they'd say, "We're going to give you twenty minutes." And the day before they'd say, "Well, you've really got to cut it down to ten." And then when you'd get there, you'd listen to all these senators or congressmen reading stuff into the record. Just bullshit. And then they cut you down to five. And you wonder why in the hell do they have these hearings, you know?
But, in '84, I wrote that thing "[Unpleasant] Surprises in the Greenhouse", and that's when I prepared that for congressional testimony.  I knew that it would be wasted on them. And, I said, "Okay, I'm going to do it right, and then get it published in Nature." Which I did. So that was more useful. I had learned, by then, that unless there's some very specific thing, it's just babble.
Well, did you feel that you penetrated any particular politician?
What got him interested in it?
Well, he's fascinated with the Conveyor Belt, and Younger Dryas, and all that stuff.
And how did he get interested in that?
Well, I suppose he was thinking about writing his book. You know? He came up here one day, while he was a Senator, and said —.
Yeah. And he said, "I want to just talk to people. I don't want a tour or anything." So, we were back in our conference room, it was Mark Cane, Peter Shlosser, Stephanie Furman and I — maybe Taro, and he came at 8:30 and he stayed until 1:00. He took his jacket off. He sat there in his pristine white shirt, rolled his sleeves up, and he wanted to discuss with us. He also had personal theories about the history of the Arctic, which were a bit bizarre. But, it indicated he knew some plate tectonics. And then he was reminded that he was late for his appointment with his tailor in New York, so he went zipping off to New York.
In the Senate hearings, I remember once he asked me a general question about paleoclimate, and I got to the conveyor belt and he said, "Stop, Wally, let me explain that to people, and see how I do." And then when I got to Younger Dryas, he did the same thing. And he did it quite well. He obviously understood. The second year of his Vice Presidency, the morning after the State of the Union Address, he had one of his little seminars in the Executive Office Building. Mark Cain and Mike Wallace and I went to that. He had all the environmental people in his cabinet. Jim Morris was there, and O'Leary, and, who's the woman from EPA? Babbit was there, Gibbons, Watson.
The whole bunch. And they were listening to you guys?
Yeah. Sitting around the big table. We were supposed to have breakfast, and they had a man coming around with coffee and little rolls. Gore gave us each about two or three minutes to present. He asked a question that he wanted answered. And then various people would ask questions. Mainly Gore. He'd give each of us a turn. He wanted to know from Mike Wallace about the flood in the Midwest, whether it was related to global warming. He wanted to know from Mark Cain whether developing nations were paying attention to the El Nino predictions. And he wanted to know, from me, the status of the conveyor belt, whether it was slowing down.
I think he got frustrated with scientists because he wanted us to say that there was definite evidence that a catastrophe was approaching on a short time scale. He liked this politically. And none of us would do that. So he'd try to put words in people's mouths. Then when they wouldn't come across and say what he wanted them to say — you know, scientists are always hedging and this and that. And, in this case, it was really appropriate because the changes we're seeing, we can't tell in most cases. And, you know, the records aren't long enough, in the ocean especially, to say whether these are part of the long term variability, or whether they're indicating something related to greenhouse warming is happening. Plus, it's still early in the warming so one wouldn't expect particularly pronounced effects.
But he wanted the one-armed scientist?
Have you heard the story of the Senator saying, "Give me a one-armed scientist. Not one saying on the one-hand this, on the other-hand that."
Gore wanted the one-armed scientist?
That's correct. So they had those seminars for a while. We were the first. I don't know whether they had five or six and then he gave it up.
So your role was to be the expert, not political in the sense that it was to be the expert?
Yes, I think it was interested in his book, partly. But, Gore, I guess he has just certain things that he knows well. Considering all the things he has to do, he's quite well informed. And he certainly doesn't get it from Katy McGinny, who is sort of a klutz.
Who is that?
Well, she was one of his aides in the Senate, and she's now installed in the White House as, what would you call her? She was the point person for the environment, with a staff of twenty-four. I had dinner with Frank Press about a month ago, and he said that one thing he holds very much against Gore is when they moved in — the Science Advisor had traditionally had a very nice office suite on the second or third floor of the executive mansion overlooking the White House. He said, "You can't imagine how important it is where your office is." And he said, "When Gore moved in, he moved the science advisor up to the attic and put Katy McGinny and her staff in that office." That just put the science advisor — set him back. He had very little influence. Plus Gibbons is not very effective at that job. The combination greatly weakened that position.
And it's been a very silent position. During all this period, come to think of it — Frank Press was the science advisor during this period. He's a geophysicist. Did you have any interaction with Frank Press during his time as science advisor?
A little bit. But not much.
Not very much?
I think he went out of his way to take the overview and not get involved with his old friends too much. Plus, he was a geophysicist, and so I was never really that close to him anyway. Because we have pretty different interests.
He was here when I first came here.
Here at Lamont? Uh huh.
Yeah. He was a professor here, a young professor. I think for one year or maybe two years. And then he went to Cal Tech. When he was at M.I.T he tried to hire me there, so I had more interactions with him then. But not so much when he was in the White House, or in the Academy.
Okay. So the one thing you were particularly trying to do was to have some effect on their actual CO2 program? You mentioned David Slade?
He was the guy before Koomanoff.
Did you have much interaction with him?
Yeah. He was sort of interesting. He got that program started. That's when the whole thing about the missing [carbon] sink became a big discussion. He had meetings and we tried to figure it out. He got himself in trouble, I think, when he proposed that we create a scenario. It would be like a "business as usual" scenario, we'd create a scenario like that and that would help sociologists and economists and so forth to evaluate the impacts. At that time a lot of us thought, "Well, that will become not just the working case, the press will take it as the real thing." So we resisted that. But there was healthy discussion about it. He wanted that. He wanted to move more in that dimension. Instead of just looking at the science of it he wanted to look at the implications to the planet.
With the hope of stirring up some public interest?
Yeah, I think. It was just, you know — he felt that was an important part of the problem. Then when the Reagan administration came in, he put that dentist in charge of DOE. The dentist called in Slade and had him make a presentation. And about five minutes into the presentation, as I hear it, he said, "Get that guy out of here, he's done." So that was the end of Slade. Then they got Koomanoff to go back to the basics, because they figured if you work on that, it doesn't get the public so upset. They wanted to have a CO2 program dedicated to the science of it, trying to figure out what was going on, rather than future impacts. Now under Clinton, it's come back the other way — more emphasis on trying to understand how to cope with it and what the economic impacts will be.
Especially during these early days at DOE, which was still a holdover from the AEC. Did you hear anything, or get any feelings that they were interested in it partly because the more worries about CO2, the more attractive nuclear reactors seemed? Did you ever hear anything about that?
I don't think I ever felt that. At that time, people were excited about nuclear reactors. Libby was a curious guy, he was head of the AEC, right?
Uh huh. For quite a while.
Yeah. And of course, he was a geochemist, and he had established the radiocarbon method, and he did Strontium 90 and stuff, so under him that kind of research was favored. I remember one of the most bizarre experiences in my life — I got a call from George Wetherall, who is a professor at UCLA, with Libby. George said, "Libby would like to see you about something." I was visiting Cal Tech. I said, "Well, I'd be glad to drive over there." They said, "Oh no, we want to come and see you." We set a time, and we were going to go to lunch, and the time came and George Wetherall knocked on my door, and he said, "Libby's parked out on California Avenue. We'll drive to the restaurant." And so, we drove out there, and he has this big white Chrysler. And when I got in, it weighted the car so that the underplate under the door was against the curb and he just took off.
And you couldn't close the door?
No, you could close the door, but he didn't have us get out it just scraped. I don't know what it did. He didn't look at the car. So off we went to the restaurant. And I didn't know what in the hell — I thought they were going to try to hire me, because I couldn't figure out why in hell — so we get in the restaurant and we order. There were four of us, Rainer Berger was there. Libby said, "Well I guess you're wondering why we have arranged this lunch?" And I said, "Yeah." And he said, "Well, I'm conducting an experiment and I need your advice." So I said, "Well, what's the experiment?" And he said, "We're doing some measurements of CO2 exchange with sea water, out in the desert. Basically they wanted to get water from a highly [biologically] productive area. So the question was, where would we get this water? Well, I told him about upwelling areas, and that this would be the place to get those. So we talked about where they were.
He wanted to go out in the Atlantic or wherever?
In the Equatorial Pacific. Anyway, then I said, "Well, for contrast, don't you need a place where there is very low productivity?" And he said, "No. We know about where one of those is." I said, "Well, where is it?" He said, "Well, just off Mexico." And I said, "That's not considered an ocean desert. There is upwelling there, and there's a fair amount of productivity." He said, "No, there isn't." I said, "Well, how do you know?" He said, "We blew an H-Bomb up underwater there." Which is true. And I said, "What does that tell you?" He said, "I personally flew over the site in a helicopter and I didn't see any dead fish." That's what he said. And I thought, "Oh, my God, this guy is something else." [laughs]
[laughing] When was this, approximately?
Okay, that was the early days. Okay.
Weird, weird, weird, weird.
Well, okay, let me back up now, because there's still some scientific things that we didn't get to finish the last time. We hadn't really gotten fully into the North Atlantic conveyor and through the later work on it. Particularly this idea of a bistable conveyor. First of all, a paper that's often cited in this is Stommel's, way back in 1961. Do you know what kind of role that played?
I don't think it played any. I don't think I even knew about the paper at the time. I had heard more from Welander, Pierre Welander wrote papers on this. I always considered it a curiosity in that I never connected with it for my own research. Welander would do experiments with U-shaped tubes. He was an ingenious guy. His whole point was that you could get bistable modes of operation in the ocean and in little mechanical systems. And he actually —.
He didn't just model them, he actually made them?
He made these models, yeah. And he also wrote the equations, because he was a theoretician. Stammel had written that paper — I didn't even know about it. The way I got into it was that, from radiocarbon dating, I knew the strength of the conveyor. And I knew something about the difference in temperature between the waters going up there and back. And when Oeschger mentioned that there were two states of climate, and that it probably involved the Atlantic, I tried to think, "Well, what the hell could that be? And how could you get such a big effect?" And I realized, "Well hell, what if you shut this thing off?" I did a calculation. And I realized how much heat it was delivering to the atmosphere. That's how I got at it. Then, let's see—.
That was around '85, probably?
Right. And then I knew about how Teller and Claus Ruth had talked about the great surge of water when Lake Agassiz drainage went out. And I also knew that the important thing for forming deep water was the salinity, and therefore that was a way to shut it off. And so I started thinking along those lines.
At that point you just thought, "What is going to shut it off?" And you knew about this idea of a sudden surge of [fresh] water?
And then modelers started to get interested in it. I remember talking to Jurgen Willibrand from a physical oceanographer in Kiel. He said, "Wally, the problem you have is that it's easy to turn it off that way but what turns it back on again?" The turn-ons were sharper than the turn-offs. The modelers soon found they could do that handily, but there were a few years where that remained a problem. I wanted to turn it off by turning off that salt flow or something.
But then we realized there were all of these other things in the ice core, and it seemed unreasonable to have a big slosh of melt water every time. So I started to think of the oscillator. Then I said, "Well, if you have an oscillator, and you have an event, it can trigger the oscillator, and so, the two can go together." I guess I still think that that's the way.
Sometimes it will be triggered by melt water and sometimes it will just be ready to go by itself. What role did the Heinrich events play in all this, do you think?
Well, there was a lot of confusion, and there still is, in that in the Santa Barbara basin you reproduce all of the Dansgaard-Oeschger events. Ithe ice core, Gerard Bond showed that there seemed to be a second order rhythm in there that was related to the Heinrich events. Now we're having a guy come here to give a lecture in January who has been studying pollen in Florida, in Lake Tulane, where he has a record that goes back 60,000, or maybe 80,000 years. He finds all Heinrich events as strong pollen pine maxima. But he doesn't see the Dansgaard-Oeschger events. So it seems like there are a number of things happening. It's more complicated, obviously. We still don't understand what role the Heinrich events are playing. We don't know, for sure, whether they are just stochastic events, like McHale said and Alley, that the ice builds up, melts from beneath, and then whoosh, out goes this stuff. It was a nice idea because it was a way to build a lot of junk in. They'd take out a 1/3 of a cubic kilometer of stuff each time and you wouldn't get that from the Greenland ice caps — you could melt the whole thing and you wouldn't get anywhere near that. You'd get 1/100 of it or something. So you need some really dirty ice at the bottom of the glacier that would slide out.
I guess what I'm asking is, in your own thinking, maybe one way how to put it would be, especially back when you were first formulating the idea of the oscillator and so on, what was the relative importance of the ice cores and of deep sea cores?
Well, at that time it was only the ice cores. And one of the problems was, you know, we didn't see it in the deep sea cores. We saw the Younger Dryas, and that's all. And then Gerard Bond over here was working with Michelle Kominz, a woman scientist here — and they were interested in looking at Milankovitch cycles, and old sediments. And they had invented something called a gamma method, or alpha method, which was a way of using color.
I still don't know if that has any meaning to it.
The color must represent something?
But they wanted to go further, and get something out of it I didn't think they could. Of course the color is a wonderful way to look at cycles. But what they wanted to do was say that a given color has a given accumulation rate.
And somehow use it. But anyway, they sent me a proposal to read. Because they had used Site 609 or something in the Atlantic, just as a test. I looked at this, and I didn't look at the longer term thing, I said, "What in the hell is all these short term events?" I went to Gerard and said, "the gamma method is one thing, but what are all these things?" They look like there is about the same number as in the ice core. So then we started to work in great detail on 609. That's when we got onto the Heinrich events. Gerard is, to this day, working on those records. In those records, he showed that for every Dansgaard-Oeschger event there was extra ice rafting, and then in the Heinrich events there was big extra ice rafting. So that's the only place, in a sense, you'll see both, clearly displayed.
So the role of this is not so much in forming your basic ideas as in trying to figure out more in detail what's going on?
Yeah. Our field is led by observation. You have too wide a range of possibility. So the business about the Heinrich events as to whether they're driven by climate or whether they drive climate, I guess is still unresolved.
Right. Okay, you mentioned a woman — was that Millie Klas?
Yes. Well, Millie was a technician working with me. She and I, and Gerard, and also Elizabeth Clark, sampled in great detail this core 609, and spent like a whole year looking at the foraminifera and the ice rafting. The Heinrich events show up as a big change in the ratio of forams to detritus. Then Sidney Hemming came here and she started with some of the students to look at the isotopes so we could determine where this stuff came from. So we did quite a bit of work. I guess we're now not doing any more Heinrich events work.
I wanted to ask you about this in your papers. It's more of a general question. You list a whole bunch of collaborators. Peteet, Rind, Denton, Millie Klas, Peng, that we talked about last time, Gary Russell, just a whole lot of names, how did these come in? Who are all of these collaborators and what role did they play?
Well, when I worked on models I used a GISS model, and the architect of the GISS model is Gary Russell. And the scientist that uses it the most is David Rind. So those two names come in down there. When I worked on the surge from [Lake] Agassiz I worked with Teller. We also looked at the Gulf of Mexico cores work with Kennet.
Worked with how? How does that work?
Well, in the case of the modeling, we would jointly agree on what would be a good experiment, and then they'd run it. It's their model. In the case of these other things, it was often getting key samples for dating, or cores from these people. And then working with them to interpret the results. Like, Ladourie in France was a co-author on one of the papers with Bond, and that's because Fairbanks here has a policy not to run routine samples for anybody except himself. So the way to get the 018 done was to send it to France and make them a co-investigator. That kind of thing.
All different — depending on what materials you're working with?
I was just going to ask you, and it sounds like an obvious question but, let's just ask anyway, how did you get interested in the future of the conveyor and the possibilities of future shutdown, and what it means?
One thing I got angry about was, my first article in Natural History Magazine was about the diversion of Agassiz to trigger the Younger Dryas.  And when that issue appeared, it was the first time Natural History put these come-ons on the cover. It said, "Could it Happen Again?" And it actually subtitled the article that way. At that time, I wasn't that far along in my thinking, and I was angry about it, because this idiot editor down there, I think he was too lazy to read the articles. There's nothing in there about the future. Zero. A lot of people will see those things and they think it must be in the article. They read the article quickly and they don't see it, so they go, "I just missed it." And that's what they remember. So I was very angry, and I wrote nasty letters. We had an argument about the title itself. They called it, "The Biggest Chill." And I said, it really wasn't the biggest chill. It was a big chill. And they said, "Well that was a movie title." So I said, "Oh, forget it." That was a minor thing. But then they added this subtitle without ever clearing it with me at all. It infuriated me. I've had that happen before, once or twice. Magazine editors, I guess, feel they can do something like that. Well, it's fine, but they should clear it. So that was an obvious thing. But I hadn't thought about it enough. I guess I wrote that article from the Senate testimony. You know, are there surprises in the greenhouse? And I started there.
Why did you write that? Where did you get that concern from? That there might be surprises?
Well, I realized from all this, that we really don't understand the climate system very well. My thinking evolved one of the things was, way back then when I wrote the modeling paper with David Rind, we would explain the whole thing because the heat released by the conveyor warmed up the right portion of the world. The rest of what he had in that paper showed pollen diagrams from all over North America, and they didn't show any Younger Dryas. That's exactly what the model predicted, that this should be downwind of the North Atlantic, and we were on the fringes. And then, one by one, evidence started to pop up that these things were global. I guess it's then I realized that there was something major we didn't understand about the climate system, because no model can really produce it. Turning on and off the conveyor alone won't do that. It's definitely confined to the region around the north Atlantic. We now know that the Younger Dryas was practically as big in New Zealand as it was in the Alps. And I also realized more and more, we don't understand what it is that produces a glacial period. I mean, these changes are too big.
So, at first you were surprised, and then you wanted to point out —?
Yeah. I started saying the climate system is like an angry beast. It does unpredictable things. And we're making a global effort to change climate by adding CO2. We may fail, hopefully. But since the climate system appears to have been driven and paced by Milankovitch cycles, and they're so weak that the models hardly notice them, there's some great amplifier in the system that's able to take these small forcings and blow them into big events.
Which we don't fully understand?
Yeah. And we're loading the atmosphere up with greenhouse gases. We certainly couldn't go to court and say this is not going to have a big impact. Maybe it won't, but —.
There were other people, of course at the time – one thinks of Jim Hansen, and Schneider, and so on — what do you think of their efforts to publicize it, and what impact has that had on you?
In a way, I'm somewhat alone in emphasizing the possible abrupt nature of climate changes in the future. The IPCC  report has almost nothing on this.
So, you're still above even now?
Well, I'm sort of ahead of the crowd in talking about this, I realize. But I think the people who are working on models and things, Stefan Rahmstore in Potsdam, and Weaver in U. Victoria are equally concerned.
But it hasn't penetrated to a larger —?
Well, I think the Hansens, Schneiders, they're much more concerned with the gradual warming, which is certainly going to happen. It's appropriate. I stay away from that because plenty of other people are dealing with it. I have no personal expertise that allows me to say anything more than they have. I'm just pointing out another aspect of it. The question I have in my mind is, how much of past climate changes have come in jumps, and how much of it has been continuous? That's not a question we can answer. Certainly a fair amount of it has come discontinuously. The Holocene sea level hasn't started to drop, Greenland hasn't started to get cold, yet the Milankovitch forcing has gone from peak to medium. It’s changed a lot. So I look at that and say, "Well, we're not slavishly following Milankovitch, that's for sure."
We'd be going into an ice age.
That we're going to fall off a cliff into an ice age. I hate to get involved in this argument, that by warming the planet we're going to prevent an ice age. I think that's total nonsense. Because there's a mismatch in time. I look at the thermohaline circulation and say, "Well, it's really concerned with density of surface waters". During the glacial period there was this chance of releasing fresh water from ice caps. Now, as we add CO2 to the air and warm the planet, strengthen the hydrologic cycle, we're tending to drown out circulation. I realize more and more that it's not a symmetrical thing. If you load one end of the planet more than the other, you'll still cause a reorganization. Because it's a balance between what's going on at the two ends of the planet.
Meaning the Atlantic and Pacific?
The North Atlantic and the Antarctic. They're very different places and are going to have quite different responses to greenhouse warming, and therefore, the chances that the buoyancy changes will be equal at the two ends is small.
Very slight, yeah.
Yeah. Of course, if there's not very much warming, then there won't be very much change in buoyancy, and then I guess everything's okay. But if we have a sizable warming, then the biggest change in climate may come from the reorganization.
In the news articles that came out from this November 28th  article in Science, people tended to pick up on the fact that one scenario would be we would create another Younger Dryas. In the article, I tried to avoid that. I suppose it is a likely conclusion, but I would say that we know so little about these states, how many of them there are, there's obviously some hierarchy of things going on that's more complicated than we thought before, so I don't want to say.
So it's worse than that, it could happen again, something even completely different could happen.
Yeah. In our NOAA consortium, we're studying the southern ocean, and that's where the biggest uncertainty lies. We don't understand where the deep water forms. If we don't even know where it forms, it's hard to engage what it's doing, and what are the things that are going to cause it to change.
Okay. Now tell me, in all these things a lot of people see politics, and it's assumed that people who worry about warming tend to be more on the left, or liberal, or anything having to do with the environment. Do you feel that your personal political views have had any influence in this?
I don't have strong political views.
You don't regard yourself as left, right, up, down?
No. I'm not an ardent environmentalist. I have an environmental bend. But I get very annoyed with people who overtly play politics, using their scientific reputation. Barry Commoner was one of those. George Woodwell's another. Lindzen is another who is doing it the other way. People who are making an extremely strong political statement based on their personal beliefs. In this case, I think what I'm saying is true, and it should be pointed out, as a wake-up call. I'm not saying exactly what we have to do, but I'm saying what we're doing we ought to worry more about it than we do. And when people from the oil companies and so forth trivialize the problem, that does annoy me. I think we can't run the world based on that kind of polarized debate.
But I'm almost never on any committees here, there, or anywhere. Most people don't want me on committees, because I'm too strong-minded and I talk too much.
You tell people what you think?
Yeah, and then I try to force it on them [laughs]. So for years and years I have not been on committees. I retired from the National Academy because I don't see any point in it. All they do is elect members. I'm involved in the straw ballots as it is. I never go to their meetings. I don't try to organize awards for other people. I'm certainly not a "company man," in that my actions are programmed so that the field, you know, my colleagues, like me. I operate from my personal convictions, and I don't really care what the consequences are. I think that's more important. I would be terrible in any administrative job.
Well, I certainly hope you keep your scientific productivity up there.
Hans Suess — did I mention this about the dynamic incompetence? I think I did.
No, I don't think so.
Well, when I was in, probably, my first or second year here, Hans Suess, who was an Austrian scientist who came over here after the war, worked with Libby, developed an acetylene method for doing radio-carbon, which the USGS used for a long time. We realized we had to get out of the black carbon business because Strontium 90 was killing us. Kulp and I went to his lab to see how this worked. Suess did not like Kulp. A lot of people didn't like Kulp. So it was a little bit tense. Kulp had to go to the men's room, and when he was gone — I, here's Suess who was probably what, 45, 50 and me just a young graduate student, he didn't know what to say. So he said, "You know young man, you never want to become an administrator. It ruins scientists. Too many scientists' careers are ended because they become an administrator." He said, "You've really got to prevent that." I said, "Well, how do you do that?" And he said, "Well, you have to be a dynamic incompetent." I said, "What does that mean?" He said, "Three or four outrageous acts a year." So I guess I've done my three or four.
Also, I found that being a power behind the throne is far more interesting and fun than having to shovel the shit, you might say. If you're the boss's key advisor. I like to psych out new people, new fields, and help get them started here.
Here at Lamont, uh huh.
So it's not that I don't take an interest in my department, I do. I probably have more interest in it than anybody else around here, and in Lamont. But I work singly, not in committees.
That sounds good to me. I'm jealous. Okay —.
They never do anything. That's the whole problem. If you're a single worker with some ideas you can run circles around most committees. Their hands are tied, because they've got too many minds involved.
Okay. Just to finish up, we haven't talked really about your family and personal affairs. I wanted to ask how that might have interacted with the fact of you being a geophysicist and oceanographer.
Well, I was always good in science so it was obvious that that was a good profession for me. I met my wife while I was in high school, and we got married just as I was entering college. We've had six children. She's been the kind of wife that has not held a job. You know, loves being a mother and a house maintainer. It's worked out quite well. I guess it's typical old-style that I poured an awful lot more effort into my profession and less into my family. And she's poured an enormous effort into the family. Fortunately for the family.
Well, it's the traditional way and it's worked for a lot of people.
Yes. It was an effective way. It may have been hard on women, but she seems to have — now that the kids are all grown up she's developed a lot of her own interests, and is as busy as I am doing various things.
So the fact that you were a scientist, going off on ocean trips and so on, wasn't any different than being a salesman or any other profession, perhaps?
I don't know. There were a lot of professions that involved being away a lot, I suppose. At least my profession didn't involve moving my family. [Interuption by secretary, another appointment.] We should stop now.
Let me just ask two more questions. Anything else – any major thing we still haven't covered?
I don't remember what we've covered but I don't think so.
Two real quick questions. Looking back over your career, what were the best parts and what were the worst parts?
Well, I'm an "up" person and I've enjoyed my entire career. I had, like everybody, low points where specific things happened. But they were brief. I've been in a number of wars with directors here. But, I guess I enjoyed that a little bit. [laughs] A couple of times I thought about leaving because I was very frustrated with them, but I don't think I ever pushed anybody to the point of making me a real offer. My tendency to do that would have been mainly in my brain not in any action.
That's frustration with the administration?
Yeah. Like, currently with Eisenberger. I mean, he's doing a terrible job. Gordon Eaton did a terrible job the whole time — Manik Talwani was a great director until the last couple of years. Then he became totally paranoid. Barry Rowley, I just saw him at AGU, he was here eight years. Everybody loved him, I cried when he left. He was really a good director. Our interim directors have been good. But I can't cope with incompetence. I get very annoyed by it and I demonstrate my annoyance. And the same with other scientists. If I think people are either covering up, or lying, or doing dumb things, it really annoys me. I don't like to see science done poorly and I don't take it well. Some people just pass it off. I make it clear to the person that I think it's bad.
You stand up for the science?
Yeah, rather than the people. That's right.
Okay, I think that's a good place to stop. We're running out of time anyway.
Rev. Geophys. Space Plup. 8 (1970); 169-98
Broecker, Bond & Klas, Paleoceanography 5 (1990); 469-77
Nature 328 (1987); 123-26
Natural History (Oct. 1987) : 74-83