Roger Revelle

1986 Balzan Prize for Oceanography/Climatology

For his important contributions to oceanography and climatology, in particular, for his fundamental research on the increasing content of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and its serious consequences for humanity.

Roger Revelle, born in 1909 (†1991), Professor of Science and Public Policy at the University of California at San Diego, Director (1950-1964) of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, has devoted much of his intensive scientific work to oceanography and climatology, with outstanding contributions in the following fields: measurement of the heat flow from the interior of the earth to the sea bottom; geochemistry of carbon dioxide; seasonal and long-term oscillations in sea level; sedimentation and other aspects of the geology of the sea floor.
From 1932-34 Revelle devoted himself to the study of the carbon dioxide exchange between atmosphere and ocean, demonstrating that in spite of the buffer mechanism of sea water at least half the carbon dioxide produced by combustions and other human activities remains for a long time in the atmosphere. These results led to continuous measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which were started during the International Geophysical Year by C.D. Keeling and continued up to the present day.
Today’s understanding of the global danger to humanity which arises from an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is mostly due to Revelle’s and Keeling’s work. The increase of carbon dioxide content leads to retention of heat energy received by the Earth, which may cause a rise in the average temperature (the so-called greenhouse effect), and pose a possible danger to the biosphere.
On the more strictly oceanographic side Revelle’s major contribution was to initiate a new era of exploration of the sea floor. From 1940 to 1960 he organized, with Arthur Maxwell, a series of deep sea expeditions which brought about important advances in our understanding of the sea floor. Among the significant findings made during these expeditions were: (i) the extreme thinness of deep sea sediments, (ii) the high upward heat flow through the sea bottom, (iii) the relatively young age of the sea mounts, and (iv) the existence of enormous fault zones in the eastern Pacific Ocean. These, in turn, were important for the exploration of magnetic rocks and formed a basis for the development of the modem theory of plate tectonics.
In recent years Roger Revelle has directed his attention to the problems of human population growth and to the management of natural and in particular of marine resources.

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