The boy’s journey to meet the beast began in Los Angeles, in the summer of 1955. Broecker arrived there at the end of August on a DC-7 from New York. It was his first transcontinental flight, and he spent it with a geomorphology book open on his lap, trying to understand the landscape from twenty thousand feet. Back then the pilots made a point of showing you the Grand Canyon at least. It was still a long, noisy flight, though—more than eight hours. When Broecker finally reached Los Angeles, he couldn’t see much; the plane descended into LAX through thick smog.
Los Angeles was booming; its population had increased by half in the 1940s and was on its way to doing the same again in the 1950s. The city we know today, a megalopolis built around cars, was taking shape. The network of streetcar lines, which as recently as the gas-rationing days of World War II had carried more than 100 million riders per year on more than a thousand miles of track, was in its final agonies. During the war, people had mistaken some of the first severe smogs for Japanese gas attacks, and even by 1955 the true equation—cars plus sun equals smog—wasn’t firmly anchored in the public mind. That summer workers were ripping up the rails of the Glendale-Burbank line, once one of the busiest. Congress had passed its first air pollution law in July, providing modest funds for research, but the catalytic converter was still twenty years away. Ozone levels in Los Angeles were higher that September than they’ve ever been since. City officials talked about shutting down refineries and gas stations; the governor talked about declaring the city a disaster area. The heat made things worse. On September 1, the temperature rose to 110 degrees Fahrenheit—an all-time record for Los Angeles. (It would not be equaled until 1988, the year global warming first dominated the headlines.) Around the city, hundreds of old people died from the heat that day.
That was the day Broecker delivered the first scientific talk of his life. The lecture hall was gorgeously situated, in the Southwest Museum of the American Indian—a Mission Revival–style building on a hill northeast of downtown, out toward Pasadena—but it was un-air-conditioned, and it was stifling. Through the tall, arched window at the back of the hall, Broecker would on a clear day have seen the Pacific, thirty miles away; but on September 1, 1955, he couldn’t even see the Los Angeles skyline, five miles away. On either side of Broecker, the walls were lined with display cases of Indian artifacts. Before him sat eighty or so archaeologists, a mixed crowd of seasoned diggers and more scholarly university types. The diggers and the scholars, Broecker had already gathered, were in a spat about when Indians had first arrived in North America from Asia, the diggers favoring an early date. Broecker knew nothing of all this and little of public speaking. Painful memories of a college speech class came bubbling up, along with the question of just what he, a twenty-three-year-old graduate student in geochemistry, was doing there, delivering a special address to the 2nd Great Basin Archaeological Congress.
He was following orders, for one thing. His boss back at Lamont, Columbia professor J. Laurence Kulp, had been too busy to attend the congress himself. Like Broecker, Kulp wasn’t much interested in archaeology. But the geochemical technique they were using at Lamont was of extreme interest to archaeologists—indeed it was revolutionizing the field. Radiocarbon dating had been invented just eight years earlier by Willard Libby at the University of Chicago, and there were still only a few labs in the world capable of doing it. Kulp had put Broecker in charge of the one at Lamont; he had even given the kid an assistant. Green as Broecker was, he knew all about radiocarbon dating. All he had to do was explain it to a bunch of archaeologists who knew next to nothing. That realization got him through the dreaded talk in the leaden heat. He may even have sounded a little smug.
Afterward, in any case, the man who had helped organize the conference strode up the center aisle and stood facing him. Phil Orr, archaeology curator at the Santa Barbara Museum, was clearly more of a digger than a scholar; although he smoked a pipe, it had a cigar butt in it. He was a short man with a potbelly stuffed into jeans and cowboy boots. His face was shaped like an interstate-highway shield—a wide forehead, uncluttered by hair, narrowing to a pointy, straggly bearded chin. That forehead overhung deep-set eyes that seemed made to squint. Orr eyeballed Broecker.
“Kid,” he said, for he was plenty old enough to be Broecker’s father, “I can see that you know a lot about physics and math. But I also see that you don’t know a goddamned thing about the earth.”
He paused to let that sink in, and to relight the cigar butt.
“Come with me for three weeks and I’ll change your life.”
Broecker’s life back home contained outsize responsibilities. At twenty-three, he had a wife, Grace, and two daughters under the age of three. (Four more children would arrive before the decade was out.) They were all surviving on a graduate student’s stipend, in the hope that the graduate student would soon make something of himself—get a PhD, for a start. Broecker called Grace. She said that as long as Orr paid for everything, Broecker should go along on this road trip or field trip or whatever it was.
Two days later the two men hit the road in Orr’s old station wagon. They climbed out of the brown-aired valley and crossed the Mojave Desert, heading north on Highway 395. Following the Los Angeles Aqueduct to its headwaters, along the eastern flank of the Sierras, they drove up the Owens Valley, past Mono Lake, and on into Nevada. Along the way Broecker got to know Orr. The résumé was unusual. Orr had been raised on a Wyoming ranch, had trained as a vertebrate paleontologist, and had once stuffed a panda for Chicago’s Field Museum. He was also a longtime member of E Clampus Vitus, the fraternal order of pranksters, Mason-mockers, and stuffed-shirt deflaters. This last item was particularly endearing to Broecker; the young man guffawed at the story of how Orr and a few other Clampers, dressed in tails and top hats, had driven a hearse to a Fourth of July picnic, solemnly marched a casket out into the midst of the festive gathering, and then opened it to reveal a case or two of beer on ice. By the time the two men pulled into Carson City, where Orr had once mounted a coal mine exhibit for the local museum, they understood each other. Orr deposited Broecker at a motel, then disappeared—to go out drinking or to visit a girlfriend, Broecker was never sure which.
Nevada is empty now, but it was far emptier then; the population was around a tenth of the current one. Carson City, the capital, was a large village. When you left Carson City or even Reno, you really left—you did not pass miles and miles of subdivisions. Instead you plunged straight into sagebrush desert—into “savage nakedness,” as John Muir once described it. The land was naked because it got around seven inches of rain a year. When Orr and Broecker were there, in late summer, the rabbitbrush scattered among the sage was blooming bright yellow, adding a little adornment, but the landscape was still basically brown. Around thirty-five miles northeast of Reno, the station wagon chugged up a low pass in the Virginia Mountains. From that crest, Orr and Broecker glimpsed the basin beyond. The sight startled Broecker just as it startles everyone the first time.
Nevada is famous for its basins and ranges; they march in orderly succession across the state, like waves breaking on the Sierra Nevada. But this basin was different: it was filled with blue water. John C. Frémont, the first white man to be startled by the sight of a twenty-five-mile-long turquoise lake ringed by brown desert mountains, called it Pyramid Lake, because it had a small pyramid-shape island off its eastern shore. To Frémont, in 1844, the lake would have been far more inexplicable than it was to Broecker. The notion of a worldwide Ice Age was only just beginning to be toyed with then by European geologists, and Frémont didn’t have Phil Orr with him to explain what the Ice Age had done to western Nevada.
Pyramid Lake, Orr told Broecker, is a remnant of the Ice Age, and of a mighty ancestor called Lake Lahontan. The ice sheet that covered Canada and much of the Midwest never made it to this part of Nevada; nor did the mountain glaciers that surged out from the Rockies and the Sierras. But the glacial climate seems to have been colder in the Great Basin, and it was certainly much wetter. With no outlet to the sea, and without today’s desert heat to evaporate it, all that water falling from the sky and rushing down off the Sierran glaciers just piled up. At its highstand, Lake Lahontan was larger than Lake Ontario; it covered much of western Nevada, occupying seven distinct basins that formed a ragged necklace around the Trinity Range. As the climate warmed and dried, the lake sank below the sills that connected the basins, one after another. The basins that weren’t fed directly by rivers from the Sierra dried up. The only ones left today are Walker Lake, terminus of the Walker River, and Pyramid Lake, terminus of the Truckee River and also the deepest part of Lake Lahontan.
As Lake Lahontan rose and fell, its waves cut terraces in the mountainsides wherever it paused for a while. Sometimes it even cut caves. By 1955, Orr had already dug extensively in a place called Fishbone Cave, high above Winnemucca Lake in the next basin east of Pyramid. He had found human artifacts and bones, which he believed were very old—he belonged to the camp that claimed the ancestors of today’s Indians had gotten to North America early, even before the end of the Ice Age. But he needed radiocarbon dates to test that hunch and to wave at his scholarly foes, and radiocarbon dates were expensive and hard to come by. Orr thus had a sharp and specific interest in the Eastern green-horn sitting in his passenger seat. He wasn’t teaching Broecker Pleistocene geology and Western outdoor savvy purely out of the goodness of his heart. (Those trails through the sagebrush, Orr explained to his gullible young friend, had been cut by an extinct species of cow, well-adapted to steep slopes because its legs were shorter on one side.) Over the next few years Orr got around fifty radiocarbon dates for free.
But in return, as promised, he changed Broecker’s life. The two men spent several days bouncing around Pyramid and Winnemucca in the station wagon, which sucked in dust and covered them at the rate of about a quarter inch a day, and which periodically also got stuck in the sand. They scrambled up hillsides and crawled into caves, hammering bits of tufa off ancient lake terraces and shoving them into bags. Tufa is a weird kind of calcium carbonate that forms when calcium from lake-bottom springs reacts with carbonate dissolved in the water; sometimes algae may help the reaction along. At Pyramid Lake tufa comes in giant towers that look from a distance like a city skyline, in giant branching bulbs like broccoli, and in shattered slabs. What mattered to Broecker was only that tufa contained carbon. Back in his radiocarbon lab, he would be able to find out when each tufa sample had precipated out of the lake—and if it had precipitated on an ancient shore, as a lot of it had, Broecker would know when the lake had occupied that shore. It was the highest shore he was most interested in, to find out just when the lake had last been at its largest. The highest shore was called Lahontan Beach.
On Lahontan Beach, Broecker discovered climate and got a glimmer of what a fascinating beast it could be. At a place called Marble Bluff, which overlooks the mouth of the Truckee at the south end of Pyramid Lake, the cobbles once lapped by the ancient lake are visible near the top of the steep hill. From there, your car parked on the road below is a dot, and the lake is another mile and a half beyond it. The water is more than five hundred vertical feet below you. That’s how much water has disappeared since Lahontan times. Even here, the Ice Age—which cooled the planet by fewer than 5 degrees Celsius—caused a big change in the landscape.
If you look off to your right from Marble Bluff, to the east of Pyramid Lake, you see a low rise called Mud Sill, and beyond it the next basin, flat and glimmering white in the sun. That’s Winnemucca Lake. It is no longer a lake but a playa—a salt flat. But unlike the playas north of Pyramid—including the hundred-mile-long Black Rock Desert, a Lahontan lake bottom where people now set land speed records—Winnemucca Lake didn’t dry up thousands of years ago. It dried up in 1938. The cause was a modest little structure called the Derby Dam, twenty miles east of Reno on the Truckee. The Derby Dam was the first dam completed by what is now the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, in 1905. Its purpose was to divert Truckee water into a canal that would carry it thirty-two miles southeast into the Lahontan Valley, so that farmers there could make the desert bloom with alfalfa, which could then be fed to cows. After the dam was finished, Pyramid Lake dropped steadily until finally it no longer overflowed Mud Sill. After that Winnemucca was doomed. It had never been a deep lake—some called it Mud Lake, because in many years it was more like a marsh—but it had been a haven for migratory birds. Drying up Winnemucca was an unintended consequence of a well-intentioned act, one that many people in Nevada, although not the Lahontan farmers themselves, now consider a mistake.
The environment changes on its own, and man changes it too—locally, as at Winnemucca, but also globally, as the ensuing decades would make clear. Small changes can have big effects. Broecker’s brain was not primed then to plunge into such murky waters. He was a fresh-faced, clean-cut young man with the devil in his eye. He hadn’t worried about the smog and the traffic jams back in Los Angeles. He had driven by Owens Lake, which Los Angeles had dried up by channeling the Owens River into the Los Angeles Aqueduct, and which had now become a serious dust hazard—it had not made an impression on him. And he had driven and walked for days around Winnemucca without even knowing that its demise had been man-made. That’s the way things were in 1955; the environment was only just starting to register on most people’s minds. Broecker was hardly unusual.
The problem of understanding Earth’s changing climate, as it revealed itself to Broecker then for the first time, was not yet a gloomy problem. It was not about saving the world. It was just a giant puzzle, and puzzles were what Broecker’s brain was good at. Puzzles were fun. At Pyramid Lake, home, before the water level dropped, of forty-pound cutthroat trout, Broecker was hooked for life.
Excerpted from Fixing Climate by Wallace Broeckner and Robert Kunzig. Copyright © 2008 by Three Books Publishing LLC. Published in April 2008 by Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.