Q & A with Dr. Richard Alley


By Sorcha Hyland
Summer 2013

Dr. Richard Alley, professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, was kind enough to do an interview with CReSIS about his career, climate change and the future of scientific research. Dr. Alley recently visited CReSIS when he was the keynote speaker at the International Glaciological Society’s (IGS) Symposium on Radioglaciology in Lawrence, Kansas.

Sorcha Hyland: What inspired you down this career path into geological and specifically – cryospheric research?

Dr. Richard Alley: My interest in geology and the natural world goes way back, with lots of encouragement from my parents and from community members in rock and mineral societies.  Then, I got a summer job with Ian Whillans at Ohio State after my freshman year there.  The rest, as they say, is history.  I worked with Ian through BSc, and then stayed at Ohio State for MSc.  Ian advised that I decide what I wanted to do, then do a PhD with the best person in the world for that.  And, after getting married, I told Ian that I had to do something that I could make a living at.  After exploring many possibilities over a year, I asked Ian to take me back, and he did.  And, that best-person-in-the-world advice took me to Wisconsin and Charlie Bentley for the PhD. 

SH:  At what point, if any, did you find your attention turning to global climate change? And to a more public role in this regard? Did “it” pull you in – or what was the motivating factor that led you to sharing the fruits of your research?

RA: Ian and Charlie were both well aware of the societal implications of the work, and kept us up-to-date.  But, what really moved me was helping describe the remarkably abrupt climate changes we observed in the GISP2 core.  As an example of a climate change NOT caused directly by CO2, that generated all sorts of interest, an invitation to brief the US Vice President on the results, and subsequently the National Research Council/National Academy of Sciences Committee on Abrupt Climate Change.  But, I was raised and educated with the full understanding that we owe it to society to share the results of the research they paid for, and that use of those results in decision-making really can make us better off. 

SH: How difficult is it to navigate your role(s) not just as a scientist but as a scientific advisor and educator?

RA: Time may be the biggest issue—all of the different aspects of our job are important.  You know the usual categories—teaching, research and service.  But, we might more easily describe the job as learning what no one else knows, sharing that knowledge with people, and helping them do good things with it.  All matter.  Increasingly, though, the university is paid for by tuition from students, at a time when the interest in the research discoveries and the importance (including economically) of those discoveries to the broader society is increasing.  (The role of NSF and CReSIS in helping us share our discoveries broadly is very important!)  

SH: How does one handle this responsibility – as a scientist and an educator – knowing how serious our situation is?

RA: Sleep less?  Seriously, all of us at CReSIS, and really across the universities, face this challenge, and I think as a community we are doing well.  I hope I am.  

SH: What informs your teaching and what do you think about when you stand in front of a brand new class of students?

RA: The world would probably support a few million hunter-gatherers, but we are a few billion planter-builders, powered by fossil fuels we are burning a million times faster than nature saved them for us, but with the knowledge that with good enough science and engineering, policies and politics, we can build a sustainable society for the 10 billion people coming.  And, those scientists and engineers, policy-makers, builders and planters are sitting there in class, looking for the tools to make it happen. 

SH: In your award citation from the EGU (European Geosciences Union), as first recipient of the Louis Agassiz Medal in 2005, they described you as the “thorn in the backside of the Bush administration”.  How would you describe the impact your work is having on the current administration, if any? And do you see any developments occurring in terms how science might further influence policy making at a national and global level?

RA: A large body of scholarship shows that with a wise and measured response to climate change, we end up with a bigger economy, more jobs, greater national security, a cleaner environment than what we'll have if we continue with business as usual, sort of a win-win-win-win situation.  Many public statements by policy-makers suggest that they may not have heard, or appreciated, the benefits available from this response.  So, there is much more that can be done.   

SH: How do you view the future of cryospheric research – what do you foresee as possible obstacles – and how might we overcome these?

RA: We rely on a suite of satellites, ships, planes, bases, snowmobiles, computers, and more, plus people.  These are not free.  Satellites are perhaps the easiest to highlight in the US—under existing plans, we are likely to lose much of our observational capability over the coming decade or so.  But, there are vulnerabilities in all the infrastructure, and in keeping people funded and working.  If we can keep the community together and working, the future is outstanding--the observational tools and models now available have come so far so fast, and there is so much to be learned, that we face a very bright future.  

SH: How do you view the interdisciplinary approach to cryospheric research that CReSIS and the IGS espouse? Are there other disciplines, including non-traditional or non-scientific disciplines that could further enhance our understanding of climate change – and our response to it?

RA: I'm a geologist with a minor in metallurgical engineering and materials science.  My closest collaborators include a physicist turned geoscientist, and an electrical engineer turned geophysicist.  We collaborate with chemists and biologists, climatologists and meteorologists, space scientists and more.  Outstanding!  There is room for a few more "ists", I'm confident, and I think they will come--we're having so much fun, and the work is so important. 

SH: What were you most looking forward to in visiting Lawrence, KS as our Guest Speaker for the IGS Symposium on Radioglaciology?

RA: I didn’t really want to listen to me; I went to see the latest and greatest discoveries. It is still accurate that every major field campaign brings back surprises, so we have lots of important work to do.  

Photo: Dr. Richard Alley testifying before the Science and Technology Committee of the U.S. Congress in 2010. Watch Dr. Alley's testimony before the House Committee here.