Roger Revelle


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(1909–1991) American oceanographer

Born in Seattle, Washington, Revelle was educated at Pomona College, California, and at the University of California, where he obtained his PhD in 1936. At the same time he joined the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, La Jolla, California, serving as director from 1951 until 1964. He then moved to Harvard as director of the Center for Population Studies, a post he held until 1976.

Revelle was responsible for directing much of the work at Scripps that eventually led to the discovery of sea-floor spreading and magnetic reversals. He also turned in the 1950s to what was then the far from fashionable topic of global warming.

The issue had first been raised by Arrhenius in 1895. He had calculated that a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide would raise the temperature by about 10°C. This would, in theory, occur because energy from the Sun arrives at the Earth's surface in the form of light and ultraviolet radiation, which are not absorbed by carbon dioxide. The energy is radiated by the Earth as infrared radiation, which is absorbed by carbon dioxide. The atmosphere thus acts in a similar way to the glass in a greenhouse, and the consequent warming is known as the ‘greenhouse effect’. Revelle lobbied for real measurements and as a result gas recorders were set up in 1957 at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, and at the South Pole. By 1990 the carbon dioxide concentration had risen to 350 parts per million, an increase of 11%.

Revelle was also largely responsible for the foundation of the San Diego campus of the University of California in 1959, and was appointed to be its first dean of science. He returned to San Diego in 1976 as professor of science and public policy.

Subjects: Science and Mathematics.

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