Richard Alley

Photo: Jim McQuaide

Richard Alley

Special Focus on the Environment
17th Heinz Awards - 2011

Dr. Richard Alley received the 17th Heinz Award – Special Focus on the Environment – for revolutionizing understanding of the environment with his discovery that the last Ice Age abruptly ended in just three years, breaking open the field of “abrupt climate change.”

A longtime professor at The Pennsylvania State University, Dr. Alley’s revelation debunks the myth that all of climate change happens slowly and suggests that the impacts from human-induced activities, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, may happen more rapidly than we’ve come to expect.

Dr. Alley and his team had removed two-mile long polar ice core samples in Greenland and Antarctica to study climate history and elements that lead to environmental changes. He introduced the important concept that the Earth’s climate contains “switches” and “dials” that are interconnected and dependent upon each other. His research found that some switches could be “flipped” by the continued release of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. For these important discoveries, the Alley Glacier in the West Antarctic was named in his honor.

He has proven to be one of the most active and powerful communicators on climate science in America today, hosting the PBS special, Earth: The Operator’s Manual and writing its companion book, both targeted to the general public.

Even non-science majors flock to Dr. Alley’s classes on campus. He has won teaching awards for incorporating music and other creative strategies to bring climate science and ice physics to life for his students. His dedication to both the research of environmental change and to inspiring the next generation of scientists will have widespread implications for years to come.

Note: This profile was written at the time of the awards’ presentation.

The more the climate is forced to change, the more likely it is to hit some unforeseen threshold that can trigger quite fast, surprising and perhaps unpleasant changes.”

— Richard Alley


Richard Alley, Geologist Using Glacial Data to Study Earth’s Climate - Heinz Awardee

Richard Alley, Heinz Awardee speech, 2011 Heinz Awards presentation, Folger Theatre