PSU professor's climate work wins 1 of 9 Heinz Awards
September 13, 2011 4:00 AM
Heinz Award recipient Richard Alley of Penn State University.
By Sally Kalson Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Richard Alley, a Penn State University professor and leader in polar ice studies who discovered that massive climate shifts can happen abruptly, is one of 10 recipients of this year's Heinz Awards.
The awards, to be announced this morning by Teresa Heinz and the Heinz Family Foundation, each carry $100,000 for unrestricted use and a medallion. They will be presented at a ceremony on Nov. 15 in Washington, D.C.
Mr. Alley, 54, is credited with breaking open the field of "abrupt climate change," having found that it took only a three-year period for the last Ice Age to come to a halt.
His discovery came as part of a team taking polar ice core samples 2 miles deep in Greenland and Antarctica, and studying them for evidence of climate history. His findings debunked the notion that climate change only happens very slowly, suggesting that such changes may arrive more rapidly than previously thought, especially due to the burning of fossil fuels.
"In Greenland and Antarctica there are these sheets of ice, each about 2 miles thick, of snow that has piled up layer upon layer for over 100,000 years," Mr. Alley said Monday in an interview.
"We drilled down and pulled out 20 feet of core at a time, cut into sections of summer winter, summer winter, counting down through history. How thick a layer is tells us how much it snowed. The dust and pollen in the air wind up in the ice, and air itself is trapped in bubbles. Some members of the team cracked the bubbles and analyzed the gases.
"So we can look at the indications for past temperatures in the ice, and also atmospheric conditions at the time when the snow fell."
And when they did, they saw proof of the rapid change that scientists had long suspected. "After what we found in Greenland, we can pound on the table and say 'Yes, it happened.' "
He likened the study of climate change to that of weather forecasting.
"We know it's not perfect, there's always uncertainty, but we also know it's valuable. We have the skills to understand what's coming and get ready for it."
It was not only his discoveries, but his success in reaching students and the public at large that drew the attention of the Heinz Awards.
Earlier this year, Mr. Alley hosted a PBS special on climate change and sustainable energy called "Earth: The Operators' Manual." The documentary shows many practical options, from simple to high-tech, for meeting Earth's growing energy needs. He also wrote a companion book by the same name, aimed at everyday Americans, and he regularly testifies before congressional committees and policymakers.
"Dr. Alley's research on ice cores has provided an essential cornerstone to the study of environmental change," Mrs. Heinz said in a statement. "He discovered that such changes can be abrupt and massive and he is able to communicate these complex ideas in a clear and compelling way."
"Climate change is an enormous challenge that requires big action," said Mr. Alley, who received a doctorate in geology from University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1987.
"Our grandchildren will one day ask us to explain the choices our leaders made today."
This will be the 17th year for the Heinz Awards, which recognize individuals for creating workable solutions to the world's problems.
Other winners are:
• John Luther Adams, composer from Fairbanks, Alaska, for his music inspired by the natural world.
• Janine Benyus of the Biomimicry Institute in Missoula, Mont., for looking to nature's engineering for the design of sustainable human systems.
• Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis of Wicked Delicate Films, Truck Farm and FoodCorps of Brooklyn, N.Y., for engaging people on sustainable food through film, humor and innovative programs.
• Louis J. Guillette Jr. of the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, for leadership in the field of hormone disruption and the impact of chemicals on wildlife.
• Joan Kleypas of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Institute for the Study of Society and Environment in Boulder, Colo., for breakthrough research on the impacts of environmental change on coral reefs.
• Nancy Knowlton, of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., for broadening the understanding of ocean biodiversity and the impact of humans on marine life.
• Nancy Rabalais, of Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium in Chauvin, La., for pioneering research on oxygen depletion in the Gulf of Mexico and working to reduce water pollution.
• Sandra Steingraber, of Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y., for highlighting the link between toxic chemicals and diseases through her written work and for engaging the public as a cancer survivor.
Nominations for the Heinz Awards are submitted by invited experts who serve anonymously. The selections are made by the board of directors for the Heinz Awards upon recommendation by a panel of jurors. More information is available at www.heinzawards.net.