The fifth BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the climate change category has been awarded to MIT's Susan Solomon for her work on determining how human action alters the composition of the atmosphere and how, in turn, these changes affect Earth's climate. The award citation states that Solomon "has contributed, through her research and leadership, to the safeguarding of our planet."
Solomon's work over 30 years has succeeded in establishing and drawing together links between three key climate change variables: human activity, a profound and comprehensive understanding of the behavior of atmospheric gases, and the alteration of climate patterns globally.
According to the award citation, "her early research, fundamental to the understanding of stratospheric chemistry, led to the strengthening of the Montreal Protocol to curb the use of ozone-destroying substances." In recent years, the citation adds, "her contributions and leadership within the IPCC and other forums is a role model of science for the public good."
In the words of Bjorn Stevens, the BBVA jury chairman: "Her research has really shown how basic science can shape policy decisions and social actions. She is not an activist; she is very much a basic scientist, but she has this knack of picking up topics and developing new understanding which then influences the public debate. Probably there is no other scientist in the field whose results have had such a big impact on one of the key social questions of our time."
Carlos Duarte, the jury secretary and director of the Oceans Institute at the University of Western Australia, added during the announcement event that Solomon "has formulated a general theory of climate system response to perturbations in atmospheric composition."
On receiving news of the award, Solomon, the Ellen Swallow Richards Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Climate Science, declared herself "thrilled. It is a fantastic award and also a great honor to join these very distinguished past recipients."
A precocious scientist and a vital discovery
Solomon was won over to science at an early age by watching TV nature programs such as The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. Her passion for atmospheric chemistry was already apparent in high school, where she won a prize with a project measuring the amount of oxygen in gas mixtures.
After earning her PhD from the University of California at Berkeley, with an atmospheric chemistry project alongside future Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, Solomon started work in the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). It was the early 1980s, and news was coming in of a drastic reduction in the ozone layer over Antarctica. Although the ozone-destroying power of the gases known as CFCs — chlorofluorocarbons, used in refrigeration and aerosols — was already known to science, the hunt was still on to find the causes of the hole opening up in the Antarctic ozone layer.
Why a hole over Antarctica, so far from where CFCs were in regular use? And, why was depletion happening so fast? Susan Solomon solved the mystery by elucidating the chemical reactions that take place on the surface of the ice crystals present in the stratosphere over both poles. But not content with constructing an explanatory model, she was determined to test her theory on the ground. In 1986 and 1987, Solomon led two expeditions during the Antarctic winter — with its permanent nights and temperatures as low as -50 degrees C — to gather data on atmospheric composition at the time and place when the hole was forming. The evidence obtained would vindicate her theory.
Science had already established that a lack of ozone led to an increase in the ultraviolet radiation reaching Earth, but it was Solomon who proved, in later research, that these changes in stratospheric composition also impacted on climate. In particular, the ozone hole has a clear effect on wind and rain patterns in the Southern Hemisphere.
This was the first time a link had been found between the ozone hole and climate. As Solomon explains: "the ozone hole is such an incredible perturbation of the entire atmosphere, it just rocks the planet."
Her research has produced such tangible results as the ban on CFC gases in the Montreal Protocol, signed in 1987. "What's encouraging about the ozone hole is that it shows that people can understand that we can change our global environment in ways that are not safe, but we can also make choices to decide that we don't want to do that," Solomon says. "And is it not amazing that virtually every country in the world has signed the Montreal Protocol?"
Combating climate change
Another of Solomon's findings highlights the slowness with which the atmosphere recovers. Despite this, Solomon insists, "it is important to know that it's not too late to stop turning up the thermostat."
"My discovery really increases the importance of making good choices about how much more carbon dioxide we want to put into the atmosphere, because we need to understand that what we are doing cannot be easily undone," she says.
Solomon has no doubt that innovation is one of the best ways to combat climate change. "There is a tremendous amount of technical work and engineering to find alternative ways to produce energy, or to get the carbon back in the ground," she says. "I am a strong believer in technology, and I see tremendous and encouraging changes happening."
In 2002, she joined the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), where she co-chaired Group One, tasked with writing the watershed climate report published in 2007.
"What is really great about scientists is that you can have 10 scientist in the room and it doesn't matter if their native languages are different," Solomon says. "They look at the data and are able to talk to each other in a very constructive way. That's truly incredible and it's also the reason I love being a scientist."
The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards, spanning eight prize categories, recognize research and creative work of excellence as embedded in theoretical advances, technological developments, or innovative artistic works and styles, as well as fundamental contributions in addressing key challenges of the 21st century.
Susan Solomon joined the faculty of MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Science in January 2012. In this interview, recorded in September 2011, she talks about her work and some of the things she is looking forward to at MIT.