Talk to Richard Alley about ice and you are talking his language, a way of soaking in the history of a whole planet by reading layers of frozen water like pages in a book.
On Friday, Alley’s groundbreaking — or maybe icebreaking — work in the field was honored yet again when the BBVA Foundation gave him its Frontiers of Knowledge award in the field of climate change.
The Penn State researcher found out about the latest honor Thursday and then got up early to accept the award via conference call from Madrid.
“They said very nice things. I am deeply humbled and very happy. But the truth is that it is we, not me,” said Alley, sharing the credit with the team of researchers at the university who are cracking the mysteries of ice. Oh, and his wife, Cindy.
The international foundation gave the award to Alley, the fourth consecutive researcher at an American institution in the seven years the category has been recognized, for work that decodes the global climate by examining ice cores.
Miguel Canals, chairman of the department of stratigraphy, paleontology and geosciences at the University of Barcelona, was on the international jury that selected Alley’s work. He called the glaciologist “our best interpreter of ice.”
“Although there are others working in different aspects of the field, he is the one who completed the circle,” he said in a statement. “In ice, he has read the history of the atmosphere, with its phases of abrupt change. He has elucidated its mechanisms of formation and deformation and how it interacts with climate. Alley explains the present while keeping a window open to the past and analyzing possible future paths.”
Alley is quiet about his own contributions but enthusiastic about his subject, which serves as a Rosetta stone for translating the earth.
“It really helps us read the past,” he said. “It helps us tie together other things.”
Like samples taken from caves, from layers of mud and sediment or from the rings of old-growth trees, the ice cores can show evidence of a storm here, a fire there, a global catastrophe elsewhere. But there are things that ice can show, he says, that can’t be seen in other ways.
“Where else can you get a sample of air? Nowhere,” Alley said. But precious bubbles of Earth’s prehistoric breath can be salvaged from those cores.
Penn State has seen plenty of focus due to Alley and his team’s work on climate change issues.
He was one of the authors of United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that shared in the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. He has become a leading voice on the critical importance of the field with a PBS special and election to the National Academy of Sciences; and he was one of the first to claim the U.S. News and World Reports Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Leadership Hall of Fame award.
“Richard Alley is an amazing and prolific researcher and teacher. His work has been lauded repeatedly and he is always in excellent and prestigious company when he receives these honors. His outstanding contributions to the study of ice and the climate are informing our world in significant and meaningful ways,” Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said.
But ask Alley about what is important, and it has nothing to do with prizes — even one like the Frontiers of Knowledge that comes with a 400,000 euro purse.
“There is a lot of water that has evaporated from the oceans and is sitting on top of Antarctica and Greenland. If it melts, we are all going to be very unhappy,” he said.
His next steps, he said, are simply to continue advancing the work, “and turn the knowledge into useful things.”