Walter Munk in 2014. Munk passed away on February 8. (Credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography)

Peter Dykstra: Two departures, and a couple possible arrivals

Farewell to two science giants. And a key Trump agency seems to re-discover climate change.

I've written in the past that the faces of environmental icons like the late David Brower may someday appear on an environmental Mount Rushmore, with the mitigating circumstance that Brower's spiritual descendants would fight tooth and nail against blowing up a mountain to carve peoples' heads into it.


The same could be said for scientists whose work advanced our knowledge of the global environment, and in many ways, inform humanity of the perils it's created. Two such science heroes died in recent days, oceanographer Walter Munk and pioneering climatologist Wallace Broecker.

Munk, who was said to bristle when hearing his nickname "Einstein of the Oceans," died February 8 at age 101 in San Diego. Munk was born in Austria during World War I, emigrated to the U.S. during the Nazi rise to power in 1932, and enrolled at Columbia University, where his most memorable achievement was a term as president of the campus ski club.

He transferred to Cal Tech in Pasadena, where surfing replaced skiing as his passion, leading to a lifetime's work on the physics of waves, currents, and the oceans. As a grad student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Munk helped create the surf forecasting techniques used by the Allies in the D-Day invasion and other World War II amphibious assaults.

Beginning in the 1970's, Munk increasingly focused on the oceans' role in absorbing carbon dioxide and the impacts of rising ocean temperatures on potential sea level rise. Late in life he took an activist stance toward climate change.

When a section of boardwalk near Scripps was renamed Walter Munk Way for his 100th birthday in 2017, Munk said, "The CO2 we are putting into the atmosphere now is producing a rate of sea-level rise so that the Walter Munk Way is not going to enjoy another 100 years."

Wallace Broecker (Credit: Columbia.edu)

Wally Broecker died February 18 in New York City at age 87. The announcement came from Columbia, where, unlike Munk, Broecker stayed for 67 years.

While some scientists published theory and conjecture on climate change as early as the 19th Century, Broecker's work at Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory helped tie it all together, publishing seminal works on the carbon cycle and the ocean current "conveyor belt" that exchanges water from warmer to cooler latitudes and back again.

Possible lights at the end of Trump’s carbon tunnel

Jim Bridenstine (Credit: NASA)

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who once threw serious shade on climate science, continues his self-proclaimed "evolution" on a major topic for his agency. In December, Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence, placed climate front and center in an annual report on global security threats.

At NOAA, the agency's Twitter account has recently gotten in the face, or at least the hyperactive thumbs, of the 45th President. When a mid-February cold snap covered much of the eastern U.S., Donald Trump reprised the myth that cold weather over his delusion-filled head somehow disproves global warming – a phrase Broecker helped popularize in a 1975 paper but revised by Trump to "global waming" (sic).

NOAA's official Twitter feed shot back: "Winter storms don't prove that global warming isn't happening," with a link to a government climate page that has survived Trump administration scrubbing of online climate knowledge.

Lest we get too excited about these potential changes, it was revealed this week that Will Happer, a retired Princeton physicist who is a go-to voice for climate deniers, could emerge as Chair of an administration commission on climate and security.

Print Friendly and PDF
SUBSCRIBE TO EHN'S MUST-READ DAILY NEWSLETTER: ABOVE THE FOLD
Opening plenary at the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists in Fort Collins, Colo., 2019. (Credit: Colorado State University)
Originals

30 years of being (almost always) right

It's an epic birth story that is, in all probability, also a true one.

Keep reading...
Credit: Heather Mount/Unsplash
Originals

Autism and phthalates: Exposure in womb linked to autistic traits in boys

Young boys who were exposed in the womb to certain phthalate chemicals were more likely to have autism traits at ages 3 and 4, according to a new study published in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Keep reading...

(Credit: USDA)
Originals

Amid the non-stop Trump news, don't ignore the persistent assault on the environment

These days, the front pages and cable gabfests are nearly all-Trump: Impeachment hearings, Presidential Twitty-fits, pardon-a-paloozas and more.

Keep reading...
Youth Climate Strike in Santa Rosa, Calif., in March 2019. (Credit: Fabrice Florin/flickr)
Originals

Together, we make mud

The noted philosopher Rodney Dangerfield described his fictional marriage in a way that provides insight into the widening gulf in U.S. environmental politics: "She's a water sign. I'm an Earth sign. Together, we make mud."

Keep reading...
Credit: Eden, Janine and Jim/flickr
Originals

The I-told-you-so heard ‘round the world

When I'm in the checkout line at the grocery, the tabloids invariably catch my eye for a split second.

Keep reading...
Associate Justice William O. Douglas.
Originals

Before Gore, Greta, and the Green New Deal: Part Two

Let's start with an inveterate American treehugger named William O. Douglas.

Keep reading...
From our Newsroom

Above The Fold

Daily & Weekly newsletters all free.