Alumni Profiles

 

Peter deMenocal ’78


In the required Brooks admission essay, at the age of 13 Peter deMenocal ’78 wrote of the plight of whales, citing reasons why they need not be hunted and killed.

“It’s interesting that I selected that topic,” he said from his home office in New York more than 30 years later. “I was what you’d call a classic student of liberal arts, not at all a scientist. I spent a lot of time in the art studio, thinking I wanted to be a painter. My uncle Richard [deMenocal ’38] was an artist, and the thought of making a living as a painter was intriguing to me. It was the ’70s — saving the whales, family tradition and art — at the time it apparently made perfect sense to me!”

Through his early interest in art and natural proclivity for math, deMenocal sensed a connection between the two. He observed the relationship between the exquisiteness of math as reflected in patterns occurring in nature.

“By the time I was applying to college, I was torn between pursuing the beauty of painting and the elegance of math,” he said. “While I was taking an introduction to geology course, my college roommate loaned me a book called Planet Earth. I stayed up all night reading it cover to cover; it was fascinating! It was all there for me, I discovered elegance and beauty of math and art in science—the convergence was there in the study of the earth.”

In that moment of realization, deMenocal’s career in the field of paleoceanographic marine geology began.

“The discipline was in its infancy then,” he said. “Climate change, global warming and ‘being green’ weren’t part of our everyday vocabulary. But those of us involved in studying marine sediments to better understand how past changes can predict future events were aware of the importance of collecting this data.”

DeMenocal, a professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, is an expert in the study of ocean cores, with particular focus on the climate of the Pliocene, a geologic epoch (or time period) that lasted from roughly five million to two million years ago.

“We look at climate fluxuations,” he explained, and what historically are their causes and effects. The Pliocene epoch is the last time experts believe the climate was as warm as, thanks to greenhouse gases and man-made pollution, it will be soon.

“We’re using the past as a guide to the future,” he said.

In the mid-1990s, he and fellow scientists were motivated by a growing concern about global warming to look in detail at the Holocene epoch, which began 10,000 years ago and continues today. What they found was surprising, and disturbing.

They were surprised to find that during these 10,000 years, changes in climate have been quite large. And what disturbed them was the fact that these large changes were in response to relatively weak natural causes. If the climate changes dramatically because of small natural influences, scientists fear, then what effect will major, man-made changes (such as greenhouse gases) have?

“The recent changes we’ve observed and the data that’s been collected speak to us,” he said. “We will reach a tipping point in 10 to 20 years, from which there will be no turning back. The key to preserving the future of our planet is in understanding the past — the same as studying history to predict and perhaps avoid future situations.”

He believes the greatest hope to avoid these future situations is getting the word out to young people: “They are our agents for change, and the only way to make progress is to take the first step.”

To that end, deMenocal has accepted an invitation to be a guest lecturer at the Friends Central School, a Quaker K–12 school located near Philadelphia. Getting out the environmental message to younger generations is something he feels is long overdue.

“This ought to be part of the vernacular of everyone who works in the field. We have to get the message out to the public,” he said.

Finding ways to let younger generations know how climate change will affect their lives is something he’s working on. “If we can instill in our kids the practice of conserving and preserving resources, and the knowledge that everyone has the ability, the responsibility, to make changes to preserve our planet, then we will have achieved perhaps the most important and necessary goal. Sharing information with our kids, educating them with the facts — it’s crucial, it’s the key.”

One case in point is the oil industry — within a matter of years, he says, there will be a peak in oil production, changing how future generations do everything from heat their homes to drive their cars.

“For the kids who are at Brooks right now, they will see a change from a petroleum-based economy to something else,” he said. “That’s a pretty daunting thought.”

And though it’s difficult for some people to wrap their heads around such a change, deMenocal approaches such intense topics with the idea that individuals can make a difference. He said one of his goals is to “empower people to think big and to act . . . to get involved in climate change.”

He’s acting not only through his work and his research, but in other ways as well: he’s working on using an award he won last year from Columbia to buy a fleet of electrical cars that would be powered by a solar garage.

“There will always be skeptics, but you just have to be very inventive,” he said.

Beginning as a graduate research assistant in 1986 at the Lamont-Doherty Observatory, deMenocal’s career has been based at Columbia. Following his graduate work, he advanced as a postdoctoral research scientist in 1991, and went on to assistant and then associate professorship in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. He was named full professor in 2007 and received the Distinguished Columbia Faculty Award for excellence in scholarship and teaching in 2008. Among his numerous awards, deMenocal received the Bruce Heezen Award for excellence in graduate study, the Richard Foster Flint Lectureship at Yale University and the Elsevier “Top 50” highly cited paper award.

He has served as an expert consultant and has been featured in several major media projects, most recently Human Evolution and Climate Change (NOVA, 2007), Ancient Egypt Climate Change (Discover Channel, 2007), Eleventh Hour (a film by Leonardo diCaprio, 2007) and Little Age, Big Chill (History Channel, 2006). He has published in more than 60 journals and books and has been a guest lecturer at scores of universities and conferences throughout the world.

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