Nobel Prize-winning professor makes research, study of climate change easy to understand

Story posted April 23, 2012 in News by Jennifer Swales

As the video begins, a lean, small-statured man in his mid-50s saunters into frame dressed in an all-black outfit, guitar in hand. In a deep, gravelly voice he says, “Hi, I am not Johnny Cash, but I have been in a ring of fire.”

He proceeds to play “Ring of Fire” on the guitar, but instead of singing Cash’s famous lyrics, he creates his own, explaining the real “ring of fire” — a term given to the ring of volcanoes that encircles much of the Pacific Ocean.

The man singing is glaciologist Richard Alley, one of the leading experts on climate science in the nation today. He is also a professor at Penn State, known across campus for his one-of-a-kind musical parodies, like “Ring of Fire,” which was created for his Geology of the National Parks course.

What distinguishes Alley is his extraordinary ability to convey difficult scientific concepts in a way that is easy to comprehend.

“In science, it takes a very special kind of individual to be willing to step outside of their research and outside their lab, and be a communicator of science,” said William Easterling, dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. "Dr. Alley has that gift."

In a time when seemingly inexplicable weather patterns have become the norm, Alley just might be the guy who can tell us why. The Penn State Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences has quite an impressive resume. He’s written several books, played host to a three-part documentary on PBS, and won many awards—including the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize that he shared with former Vice President Al Gore. He has also been called one of the foremost glaciologists of all time.

In his office recently, Alley sat behind his desk, sporting his usual unkempt beard and thinning, wavy hair parted drastically to one side. He was discussing global warming.

“If you’re a gardener in Pennsylvania right now, you’re getting a wider range of things you can grow and you might say, ‘Wow, this is a really neat thing,’ ” Alley said. “But if you’re a poor person in a hot place, you’re probably less enthusiastic about it ... The people causing it and the people suffering from it right now are different people.”

The people who live in places that have winter weather and summer air conditioning aren’t going to see the effects for a while, he said. The people who will see those effects probably haven’t been born yet. This is where it gets tough, he said, because it is hard to project the consequences of your actions on somebody you don’t see.

Alley’s glass-framed eyes look tired from hours of staring at books and computer screens, but when he speaks to a crowd, there is a youthful sparkle in his eyes and a vibrant energy in his demeanor. His presence fills the room — and people listen.

At a recent librarians’ conference at Penn State, people packed the classroom to hear Alley’s thoughts on climate change. The room was so full that some had to gather outside the door.

His enthusiasm is infectious, and his understanding of climate change rarely disappoints. After all, he has been credited with breaking open the field of “abrupt climate change” with his discovery that the last ice age ended over a period of just three years, disproving the idea that ice ages only happen over very long periods of time.

Alley has spent three field seasons in Antarctica and eight in Greenland, studying two-mile-thick ice sheets in an effort to understand the history of the climate system.

Explaining science simply


And in typical Alley fashion, he can explain his research of the ice sheets to just about anyone — by comparing it to pancake batter.

Snow accumulation on the ice sheets is like pouring pancake batter on a griddle, he said. If you keep pouring batter on the griddle, it eventually builds up. The same can be said for the snow on the ice sheets.

“The pile is spreading under its own weight, and if you can think about pouring pancake batter on a griddle — it spreads. That’s really what an ice sheet is: a one-continent-wide, two-mile-thick pancake. If it spreads to the end of the griddle, it drips off. If the ice sheet spreads to the end of the continent, it breaks off.”

The ice sheet has many layers from previous snowfalls, he explained. Scientists can drill an ice core down through and pull up a stick of ice that is a few inches across and a few feet long. This process is repeated until they get through the entire two-mile-thick ice sheet.

Then, scientists can count down and analyze the snowfall from a specific year. To test the accuracy, they count down to big events from history.

“We blew up an island in the Pacific with a giant nuclear bomb in 1954,” Alley said, referring to the detonation at Bikini Atoll, one of the largest nuclear explosions ever set off by the United States. “The fallout from that comes down to the world in 1955. We count down and find the fallout. We know what year that was. We get the age right.

“How thick an annual layer is tells us how much snow fell, how dirty the annual layer is, or how much dust is trapped inside tells you what was in the air. The snow turns to ice. It gets squeezed until it traps bubbles; in those bubbles are samples of old air. If you want to know what the atmospheric composition was in the past, you pull it out and break the bubbles and analyze the air ... There are also indications of temperature on the ice sheet ... So now you have a record.”

Alley has spent much of his adult life at Penn State, but he was born in 1957 in the Columbus, Ohio, suburb of Worthington.

The son of John and Ruth Alley, he was the middle of three children. His father was a pharmaceutical salesman. His mother was a stay-at-home mom and later an office worker.

Worthington had a much better school system than Columbus. Although the suburb was an expensive place to live, the Alleys bought their home in the first block of Worthington, where prices weren’t so high.

For the most part, Alley’s was a typical childhood. Like many boys, he enjoyed getting his hands dirty. He collected rocks and scuttled around in dark caves to see what he might find. However, unlike most boys, Alley never outgrew his fascination for poking around in the ground.

Back then, climate-change research didn’t exist — or at least it was confined to small-scale studies that never met the public eye.

It wasn’t really talked about in the 1960s, Alley said.

“Some people have been thinking about it for a very long time, but as a big topic of science? No, it really wasn’t.”

The U.S. Air Force had worked out the physics of how radiation in the atmosphere interacts with gases right after World War II, Alley said. However, its research wasn’t focused on global warming, but rather on the sensors of heatseeking missiles.

In fact, Alley and climate change matured at much the same time. Attending high school in the 1970s, Alley was beginning to come into his own, and so was climate change.

People were starting to understand ice age cycles, Alley said. And they were realizing that there would probably be another ice age, and “we would not be happy if glaciers ran over New York.”

At the same time, he said, scientists realized that humans were producing enough carbon dioxide at a fast enough rate that it could short-circuit the natural variability of ice ages, pushing the world into a global warming.

“So in the ‘70s, you had these two threads,” Alley said. “A human push towards warmth and a natural push towards cold.”

Pursuing a passion for science


After Alley graduated from high school in 1976, he followed his insatiable fascination for all things science. At Ohio State, he pursued both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in geology.

He also met his future wife, Cindy, the first day of freshman year. They were both geology majors and lived on the same co-ed floor of the honors dormitory. They knew each other casually, but it took a chance exchange on an elevator to move things to the next level. They were riding up to the 11th floor when Alley asked Cindy a question.

“I was in a chemistry class that he was taking,” Cindy recalls. “I didn’t even know he was in my chemistry class … and he asked, ‘How’s chemistry going?’ I started crying because it wasn’t going very well, and he started tutoring me. I figured if my grades were going to improve that much, I’d better keep him around!”

They were engaged by January of their sophomore year, and were wed just a week after graduation.

But Alley wasn’t satisfied with his education yet, so the couple moved to Wisconsin. There Cindy worked to support Alley through his doctoral program at the University ofWisconsin.

While working on his Ph.D., Alley met Sridhar Anandakrishnan, another student.

Anandakrishnan recalled that Alley made quite an impression on him.

“I was building some equipment that had to go out into the field in Antarctica, and I got behind,” Anandakrishnan said. “It was ‘all hands on deck.’ Richard had no part of this project. He was part of a totally different project, but he came over and spent a week just working away and building things. There was no reason for him to do that. He did it because he’s an incredibly generous guy.”

Alley and Anandakrishnan became friends and have been close ever since.

As Alley was finishing up his Ph.D. in geology in 1986, Cindy became pregnant with their first child, Janet.

At the same time, Penn State was further developing the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences by opening a new center called the Earth System Science Center — now the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute.

In the spring of 1987, the same week Alley defended his Ph.D. dissertation, Janet was born. With a new Ph.D. and a growing family, Alley set his sights on Penn State, and when a job became available, Alley applied.

“I didn’t get the job,” Alley said, laughing.

But the man running the center at the time, Eric Barron, who is now the president of Florida State University, told Alley, “I’m going to get you a job.”

And he did.

Alley was hired in a fixed-term position, which led to a tenure-track assistant professor position.

He finished up some work as a post-doctoral research assistant in Wisconsin, and then he and his family set out for Penn State.

Global warming heating up


They arrived in the fall of 1988, just as the debate on global warming was starting to heat up.

People were learning rapidly just how much carbon dioxide humans were putting into the atmosphere, Alley said, “and it was becoming evident that we had the capability to put up enough CO2 to make it a really big deal.”

After settling in at Penn State, he and Cindy added another daughter, Karen, to their family in 1989. The Alley foursome was complete.

Now in their 20s, both daughters followed in their father’s footsteps — one in teaching, the other in geology. Janet graduated from Penn State and is an elementary school teacher in Seattle, with a passion for teaching science to children. Karen is a senior geology major at Colgate University in New York.

“His enthusiasm made me excited about science in general, and as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to be a scientist,” Karen said. “The type of scientist has changed, but it’s always been science.”

Janet was also inspired by her father.

“I think the biggest thing that came from my dad was an enthusiasm for teaching, especially about science,” Janet said. “I have seen too many students who say they hate science or math or English because it is boring, or they think they aren't good enough at it. What I have learned from my dad, and what I try to practice when I'm teaching, is that if I can teach interesting lessons, I can help students see how interesting the world we live in is.”

Alley made learning about science so interesting that his children never tired of it.

“They never got to the point of rolling their eyes when Daddy threw his professor switch,” Cindy said. “They would listen when he talked about science, and we had some great discussions and great adventures out seeing things.”

Many of those adventures led them to national parks with breathtaking natural habitats.

During one trip, Karen said, the family traveled to 12 national parks, three national landmarks, one national monument and one national recreation area.

“I especially remember our trip to Hawaii,” Janet said. “My dad was working on some of his videos for his national parks class, and we were filming him talking about various places. Pretty soon we noticed other park visitors coming closer to listen to what he was saying. They even started asking us where our next stop was going to be, so they could follow!”

But it wasn’t all science all the time. Some of the children’s fondest memories don’t involve science at all.

Fun beyond science


“It was a lot of fun growing up in my house,” Janet said.

“Some evenings, my dad would get out his guitar, my mom her mountain dulcimer, my sister one of her many instruments, and I'd get my fiddle, and we would play fiddle tunes together.”

Music has always been a big part of the Alley family. Each year, their Christmas newsletter is a musical parody, and Alley writes three songs, one each for his wife and two daughters. The songs are his Christmas gifts. “They’re always the last presents we open,” Karen said. “And then he sings them all for us.”

Along with playing guitar, Alley also enjoys gardening, bike riding, kayaking and playing soccer.

“He bikes or runs to work almost every day and shoots for 2,000 miles on his bike per year,” Karen said. And when it comes to kayaking, “he’s been known to chauffer the entire family, either in one kayak or in two tied together.”

Alley coached both daughters’ soccer teams and then joined an adult league himself.

Of his soccer skills, Alley said: “I’m not good, but I’m enthusiastic!”

Tobin Short, a fellow teammate who organizes Centre Soccer’s adult league, has a different opinion of Alley’s abilities. One of Short’s duties is to assign players to teams at the beginning of the season. He starts by evenly distributing the best players, and Alley is always “one of the first kids picked,” he said.

He also said Alley has earned the nickname, the “Energizer bunny” for his ability to keep “going and going and going.”

“Personally I look to Rick for inspiration because he’s about my age and he can outrun almost everybody on the field,” Short said. “There are only about two or three people that can keep up with him at any age ... He’s not a super fancy player, but he’s very quick to the ball.”

Alley is also a huge fan of Dr. Seuss.

“Growing up, my dad read a lot of Dr. Seuss to my sister and me,” Janet said. “He can still quote large portions of ‘I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew’ or ‘What Was I Scared Of?’ and he uses examples from various stories in his lectures ... Whenever I read a Dr. Seuss book to a class, I can usually hear his voice in my head, the way he read it to me.”

Alley has been at Penn State for 23 years, and in that time, he’s had some amazing accomplishments. As the Penn State Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences, he holds the highest distinction that Penn State can bestow upon a faculty member, and he has made an everlasting impression on both students and faculty.

An academic ‘superstar’


“Richard Alley is a superstar,” said Penn State president Rodney Erickson. “He is among the ‘best of the best’ faculty -- a Nobel Prize-winning scholar, one of the most exciting teachers you will ever encounter, and someone who has a sense of obligation to take science and translate its wider implications for the general public.”

Jana Clinton is a former student of the Geology of the National Parks course, the one known for its music videos. She also thinks highly of Alley’s teaching abilities. “Dr. Alley definitely deserves a round of applause for all the work he has done and everything he has contributed here as a professor,” she said.

It was longtime friend Anandakrishnan who, after joining Alley at Penn State in 2001, co-developed the Geology of the National Parks course with Alley to appeal to what they thought was an overstimulated student body.

“People live a life where they’re getting yelled at all the time,” Alley said. “There are numbers floating around about how the information you see in a day compares to the information a serf would have seen in a lifetime in medieval Europe … So, if we make presentations, especially at the introductory level, that are not engaging, we’re simply not sharing the excitement we feel in what we do. And it isn’t fair to the student. It isn’t right. So you think, ‘How can I tell other people just how fun this is?’ ”

Through hard work and creativity, Geology of the National Parks was created to introduce geology to students using the national parks system. Students can take virtual field trips to various national parks in order to address questions related to geology and the environment, and many of the lessons come with distinctive music videos, like the lesson on the “Ring of Fire.” Other classic Alley hits include “Somewhere Over the Puddle,” “Rollin’ to the Future” and “The GeoMan.”

Creating the videos was a family affair. Cindy often puts everything together, adding photographs, video animations and lyrics. Janet and Karen are found both on camera and behind the scenes filming and playing instruments like the piano or Irish flute.

Dean Easterling describes Alley’s methods as “outrageously good.”

“It gets students’ attention,” Easterling said. “More than anything, it shows that Richard is committed and interested enough in making sure that students learn, as opposed to simply sit there and take notes and be able to regurgitate something on a test.”

Anandakrishnan said the class was designed to capture the attention of students who may not easily grasp the concepts of more traditional science courses.

“The world around us is so complicated and it’s changing so much that it can affect everybody’s lives, not just scientists’ lives,” Anandakrishnan said.

Alley and Anandakrishnan said it was important that non-scientists understand how the system works so that they could make better-informed decisions.

“We wanted to put those questions and ideas out in a digestible format,” Anandakrishnan said. “So students could get some introduction to that and be able to make better decisions down the road.”

Even though Alley didn’t get that first job at Penn State, it seems he’s indispensable now.

“I’ll tell you the biggest fear I have as a dean,” Easterling said. “It’s that Richard comes to me and says, ‘Well, I’ve just gotten an offer from Cal Tech, and I’m afraid it’s too good to turn down, and I’m going to have to leave Penn State.’ That’s always a fear that you have with your very best and very brightest. But you know what? Richard loves Penn State as much as we love him, so I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Explaining science beyond the campus


The love for Alley expands far beyond Penn State. He’s become something of a national celebrity for his ability to convey scientific knowledge to ordinary people. He is often chosen to explain the intricate details of the ice sheets and climate change to non-scientists.

He has taken 10 members of Congress to Greenland to explain what’s going on.

“We read and hear so much about shrinkage of the ice caps and the melting of the ice caps and the fact that chunks of ice are dropping off that are the size of New Hampshire,” Easterling said. “I think people greatly respect and revere the kind of insights that Richard can provide to non-technical people like senators.”

As the world has watched all the natural devastation taking place just in the past year -- from the wildfires in Texas to the tornadoes in Alabama and Joplin, Mo., to the devastation of Hurricane Irene — Alley just might be able to offer some insight.

“The climate is a little like a canoe,” he said. “Sometimes you lean a little, and it leans a little. You push a little, and it responds to what’s going on. But if you lean a little too far, it flips.

“We don’t care about the temperature; we care about what it means to us. The skinny version is if we make it really hot, we tend to dry out the place where we grow our food. The sea level gets higher. Tropical diseases may rise. We aren’t instantly going to get malaria if the temperature rises, but one line of defense goes down, and that’s freezing it to death … If you’re worried about rare and endangered species, well, we’re already pushing them really hard.”

He said a big part of the problem is that people can’t physically see the volume of pollution that is going into the atmosphere.

But what if they could?

“Suppose that we could see it,” Alley said. “Suppose the transportation system packaged the carbon dioxide in a way that could be seen, and it was in the form of horse ‘ploppies.’ If you could somehow spread it uniformly over all the roads in America, our cars would cover every road in America an inch deep every year. In a decade, there’d be no joggers left in America; we’d all be cross-country skiers.

“So the question is, do we burn it all and leave our grandchildren to try and figure out what to do? This is where global warming comes in, because if we burn it all, we leave them no safety net, and we will probably leave them a world that is a lot harder to live in.”

Humans are making changes that will take a long time for nature to undo, Alley said. Some of them nature will undo in years, some of them in centuries, and some of them in tens of millions of years. “We may never quite get back where we were,” he said.

Alley has made a name for himself over the years. His contribution to three of four reports completed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change earned him a share of the 2007 Nobel Prize, but that’s just the beginning. He has served on many other committees and panels. He chaired a National Academy of Sciences panel on Abrupt Climate Change and served on the Committee on Energy and National Security.

The list of awards Alley has received is also extensive.

In the fall, he was the first recipient of the Stephen H. Schneider Award for Outstanding Climate Science Communication. The award is given to a natural or social scientist who has made extraordinary scientific contributions and communicated that knowledge to the broad public in a clear and compelling fashion.

He also received the Renewable Natural Resources Foundation’s Sustained Achievement Award, which recognizes long-term contribution and commitment to the protection and conservation of natural resources by an individual, and was also one of 10 recipients of the Heinz Award from the Heinz Family Foundation, which recognizes visionaries who have made significant contributions to the environment.

Alley doesn’t boast about his achievements. He hesitates when asked about his many awards, saying it is “immodest” to talk about them. He did say he feels “deeply honored and humbled” to have received the Schneider Award, which honors the late Stephen Henry Schneider, a Stanford University professor who is known as one of the founding fathers of climatology. Schneider died unexpectedly in 2010. He was 65.

Climate change research continues


Since Alley graduated from college, climate-change research has come a long way, and he and Anandakrishnan have seen it grow into what it is today.

The conventional wisdom when Alley and Anandakrishnan were in school was that “glaciers are these big, lumbering, slow moving things, and they can change in very dramatic ways, but over long periods of time,”Anandakrishnan said.

That wisdom has changed over the last 10 to 15 years.

“Now we understand that glaciers can change their speed and their thickness over very short periods of time, anywhere from a few years to a few months to even daily,”Anandakrishnan said. “If someone would have told a glaciologist 20 to 25 years ago that we think that glaciers can do that, they’d have said that’s nonsense. But now we can measure it, and we can see it.”

Alley has played host to “Earth: The Operators’Manual,” a three-part documentary that premiered in April on PBS, and has authored a book under the same title. His book on abrupt climate change, “The Two-Mile Time Machine,” was the national Phi Beta Kappa Science Award winner for 2001. He recently co-authored “The Fate of Greenland: Lessons from Abrupt Climate Change” with Philip Conkling, Wallace Broecker and George Denton.

Because Alley doesn’t fit a mold, it may not be surprising that even his political choices are different from what one might expect from an advocate of climate-change research.

He’s a registered Republican.

Though Republicans in recent years haven’t been the biggest supporters of climate-change research, Alley said, historically, the two actually go hand-in-hand. Many people consider Republican President Theodore Roosevelt to be a founder of conservation movements. Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 in response to the growing demand for cleaner water, air and land.

“So ‘conservative’ and ‘conservation’ actually share a root,” he explained. “It’s interesting, the division into this group and that group, Republican and Democrat, we take a huge number of issues and we divide them.You get this side on all of these, and you get that side of all of these. But you can imagine a world where you started over, and you might end with a different distribution.”

Though Alley has already led an eventful life, he’s not slowing down. He’s currently finishing the “Earth: The Operators’Manual” series, focusing on quite a bit of new research, and developing a new course focusing on issues related to energy.

Alley marches to his own tune. He straddles the line between scientist and communicator, between conservative and conservationist, between serious and humorous. In the process, he fosters understanding.

“Richard gets excited about science, about the way the world works, about the way the world is put together and how it operates,”Anandakrishnan said. “And he transmits that.
People get excited talking to him. And you can’t overestimate how important that is.” 

(This story was first published in The Lion's Roar)