A Conversation With 'Distinguished Explorer' And Antarctic Climatologist Dr. Richard Alley

Feb 28, 2018

The Roy Chapman Andrews Society in Beloit is presenting its annual 'Distinguished Explorer' award to Dr. Richard Alley. He’s a Penn State climatologist whose drilling into Antarctic ice led to greater knowledge of global climate change.

Dr. Alley started out studying geology at Ohio State University, but branched into studying glaciers and snowfall while working with a professor over one summer.  The data he gathered, however, was from an "unconventional" source.

"He had me looking for fallout from atomic bombs in the snow as a way to figure out the snow accumulation rate. We didn’t know how much it snowed in Antarctica. The U.S. blew up some big bombs in the atmosphere and they put markers in the snow. The Russians did too, and if you can find those markers and you measure how much snow is on top, that tells you the snow accumulation rate."

Alley says working in Greenland and Antarctica helped him better measure annual layers of snowfall.  He used those skills to analyze cores of glaciers up to two miles in length, and the layers he found inside provided a glimpse into prehistoric climates. 

"If you know how thick the annual layer is, you have a history of snowfall. And if you have a history of snowfall and you know how dirty the snow is, you know what was blowing around in the air from volcanoes and micrometeorites and dust and pollen, and all of a sudden, you’re a climate scientist."

Alley notes that there are natural sources of climate change, such as sunlight and volcanic eruptions. He says their effects are dwarfed by manmade causes. 

"When you work through all the causes of climate change in the past, what comes out is that carbon dioxide has been the most important control. Now we’re at the point of: Climate is changeable, carbon dioxide has been the most important control, changing climate affects living things. We humans are changing carbon dioxide a lot. This is something we’d better understand."

Dr. Alley's data was incorporated into three reports of the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change. The 2007 award even resulted in the IPCC being awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.  In the course of this work, Alley crossed paths with government officials and economists. He says the most common long-term solution he's heard from the latter group is taxation of carbon. 

"There’s lots of variants. There’s cap-and-trade and fee-and-dividend. There are people who would prefer regulation. There are people who would like to outlaw things; but I believe that, if you were to poll the serious economists about this, they would say, 'Put a price on carbon in some revenue-neutral sense.'"

As for individual action, Alley advises people to stay involved in their community whenever climate issues come up. He also suggests they find an issue they're passionate about and stick to it in order to achieve a more sustainable world.

"If everybody picked something: 'I care about bike paths, I care about recycling, I care about whatever,' if the people who care pick something and move forward on that, I think we’d get there. But you can’t solve all the problems yourself, and do not try to solve all the problems yourself or you’ll go crazy."

Professor Alley is the 16th "Distinguished Explorer" recognized by the Roy Chapman Andrews Society. He will accept the award Friday, March 2, at Beloit College.