Oceans and atmospheres: geophysical sciences professor with a passion for climate change

April 7, 2021
Nora Bailey

Though ocean chemist David Archer grew up in Indiana, far from the ocean, after studying chemistry at Indiana University, he took a blind leap and headed out west to the University of Washington for his graduate studies.

“For no real reason except that I wanted to go out to sea,” he said.

This leap began a career that has reached from the bottom of the ocean to the heights of the atmosphere and into the public arena. Archer, now a professor in the Department of the Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago, became a passionate advocate for educating students and the public alike about the oceans, the climate, and the significance of global warming. At least five thousand students have taken his course on climate change over the years, and more than 40,000 more have taken his free online course. 

At Sea

DSV Alvin, a manned deep-ocean research submersible operated by the U.S. Navy, in 1978
DSV Alvin, a manned deep-ocean research submersible operated by the U.S. Navy, in 1978. Credit: NOAA.

At the University of Washington, Archer’s seafaring desires were satisfied by nearly a year of cumulative time out at sea, including a mile-deep underwater trip on the deep-diving research submersible DSV Alvin. While a mile deep off the coast of California, he got to see luminescent plankton while listening to the pilot’s country music. It was an amazing experience for Archer, who marveled that he was allowed to take a seat on a single dive that cost “probably more than the stipend for my entire graduate career.” 

Archer changed coasts to Columbia University as a postdoctoral researcher at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. This was the “Grand Central Station of climate science,” according to Archer, and an exciting place to be involved in research relating to climate change.

“It was a climate empire,” Archer said, partly due to the presence of Professor Wallace Broecker on the faculty. Broecker was the first to introduce the concept of “global warming” into climate science in the 1970s and was a fixture at Lamont-Doherty until he passed away in 2019.

In 1993, Archer left the sea behind, moving to the University of Chicago, where he was the only oceanographer in the department.

Though UChicago lacked an oceanographic fleet, Archer didn’t miss his seafaring days as much as he might have expected. He was quick to pivot his focus from field work to computational studies. 

“It’s cheaper and prettier,” he said, “and much less strenuous.” 

Unimaginably Long Times

David Archer
Professor David Archer, Department of the Geophysical Sciences, University of Chicago.

Inspired by the University’s style of explaining complicated subjects in a deep but clear way, Archer put together a course about global warming for non-scientists a few years after he arrived in Chicago. 

“That lit the fire for me about climate change and outreach,” he said.

The knowledge that Archer gained from creating the course, combined with the opportunity to tune his delivery as a teacher, prepared him to face the public. He wanted everyone—no matter their background—to understand just how long carbon that is freed from the surface remains in the air and affects our climate. 

“It’s hard to wrap your head around even for those already concerned about climate change,” he said. “Hundreds or thousands of years is vastly different from hundreds of thousands. It’s an unimaginably long time.”

Archer created free online courses on the subject, initially on his own, and later transferred to Coursera when UChicago partnered with them. 

The courses, one on the basics of climate change and the other on related Python programming practices, are still available and have been taken by over 40,000 students. 

“Developing the courses really had a big impact on my teaching,” he said. “Especially now, with teaching remotely.”

Archer also authored several books on the subject, including The Long Thaw, a book aimed at emphasizing the long-term implications of humanity’s effects on the climate.

His work on climate change outreach has gone hand-in-hand with his scientific research. 

“It can be discouraging to focus on the bad news, but it also gives me a reason to keep going,” he said.

In 2010, the American Geophysical Union honored Archer by selecting him as a fellow, recognizing him for “exceptional contributions to Earth and space science through a breakthrough, discovery, or innovation in their field.”

Archer now focuses on modeling the chemical reactions and physical transport of the ocean sediment during the past billion years of tectonic activity and plate subduction—a model that’s never been created before. In particular, he’s interested in the imbalance of accumulation and subduction of calcium carbonate and how that affects the evolution of climate.

“When it comes to global warming, the science is done. There haven’t been many surprises in the last ten years,” he said. “And yet I have a hard time moving on from it.”

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