by Steve Graham • June 19, 2000Some material reprinted with permission from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography Archives.
Once described by the New York Times as "one of the world's most articulate spokesmen for science" and "an early predictor of global warming," Roger Revelle was a giant in American science who accomplished enough during his eighty-two years to distinguish several lifetimes.
Revelle first made his mark in oceanographyas a scientist, explorer, and administratorand went on to become a senior spokesman for science, giving counsel in areas ranging from the environment and education to agriculture and world population. He was one of the first scientists to recognize the effects of rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide on the Earth's surface temperature.
Born in Seattle, Washington, on March 7, 1909, Revelle was raised in Pasadena, California, and was identified as a gifted student early in his academic career. In 1925, Revelle entered Pomona College with an interest in journalism, but later turned to geology as his major field of study. In 1928, Revelle met Ellen Virginia Clark, a student at the neighboring Scripps College and a grandniece of Scripps College founder Ellen Browning Scripps. They were married in 1931.
next: Early Career
After receiving his bachelor's degree from Pomona in 1929, Revelle entered the University of California-Berkley to continue his studies in geology. In 1931, at the recommendation of his major professor, George Davis Louderback, he received a research assistantship in oceanography at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. While at Scripps, Revelle participated in a number of nautical expeditions on the SCRIPPS, the institute's small research vessel, and as a guest on ships of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey and U.S. Navy. In 1936, after the completion of his dissertation, "Marine Bottom Samples Collected in the Pacific Ocean by the CARNEGIE on its Seventh Cruise," Revelle was awarded his Ph.D. and immediately appointed oceanography instructor at Scripps.
Revelle served in the U.S. Navy during World War II as the commander
of the oceanographic section of the Bureau of Ships and became head of
their geophysics branch in 1946. He returned to Scripps in 1948 and
served as its director from 1951 to 1964. Over the course of his
directorship, Revelle held numerous positions and appointments,
including chairman of the Panel on Oceanography of the U.S. National
Committee on the International Geophysical Year (IGY). During the
planning phase for the IGY, Scripps was designated as a participant, and
then later as the principal center, in the Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide
Program. In July 1956, Charles David Keeling joined the Scripps staff
to head the program and began measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide
at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, and Antarctica. Revelle's interest in the program
grew and he planned to investigate the general carbon cycle and the
solubility of calcium carbonate.
In 1957, Revelle and Hans Suess, one of the founders of radiocarbon dating, demonstrated that carbon dioxide had increased in the air as a result of the use of fossil fuels in a famous article published in Tellus, a European meteorology and oceanography journal. Revelle's interest in atmospheric carbon dioxide engaged his attention for the remainder of his life. He brought the subject to the attention of the public as a member of the President's Science Advisory Committee Panel on Environmental Pollution in 1965. Under Revelle's leadership, the committee published the first authoritative U.S. government report in which carbon dioxide from fossil fuels was officially recognized as a potential global problem.
Revelle chaired the National Academy of Sciences Energy and Climate Panel in 1977, which found that about forty percent of the anthropogenic carbon dioxide has remained in the atmosphere, two-thirds of that from fossil fuel, and one-third from the clearing of forests.
|Revelle influenced public opinion on the carbon dioxide issue through a widely read
article published in Scientific American in August 1982. His research
addressed issues such as the rise in global sea level and the relative
role played by the melting of glaciers and ice sheets versus the thermal
expansion of the warming surface waters. Revelle's international
scientific contacts did a great deal to disseminate research findings
and to foster discussion about the data, environmental and social
effects of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, and governmental policy
and action. Revelle considered this work very important, once estimating
that he spent twenty percent of his time keeping current with the issue.
In 1963, Revelle took a leave of absence from Scripps and formally switched fields from oceanography to public policy. He founded the Center for Population Studies at Harvard University, and spent more than a decade as director. His primary interests were applications of science and technology to world hunger. In 1976, Revelle returned to the University of California-San Diego where he received the title of Professor of Science and Public Policy and joined the Department of Political Science.
Revelle served on scores of academic, scientific, and government committees advising on a wide spectrum of topics. He was science adviser to the Secretary of the Interior, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a member of the NASA Advisory Council. In November 1990, Roger Revelle received the National Medal of Science from President George Bush. He remarked to a reporter: "I got it for being the grandfather of the greenhouse effect."