Science

George Woodwell, 95, influential climate change ecologist, dies

George M. Woodwell, the founder of the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts and a renowned ecologist whose keen research and understanding of policy shaped how the United States controlled toxic substances and how the world dealt with climate change, died Tuesday in his house in Woods. Hole, Massachusetts. He was 95.

The research center, which Dr. Woodwell founded in 1985 to study global climate change and was later renamed after him, announced his death in a statement.

During his long career, Dr. Woodwell repeatedly shed light on how the by-products of new technologies – designed to increase efficiency in the agricultural, forestry and energy industries – had endangered natural systems. His research provided early evidence of what he called “biotic impoverishment”: the steady weakening of plants, animals and ecosystems chronically exposed to synthetic pollutants.

Dr. Woodwell published more than 300 scientific articles, many in Science, Scientific American and other leading journals. He has held teaching and research positions at the University of Maine, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Yale University, and the Marine Biological Laboratory.

But he was an activist at heart, not afraid to use credible scientific findings to influence public attitudes and policies. He was central to the national campaign to end atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in the 1960s and to ban DDT and other dangerous agricultural chemicals in the 1970s.

Dr. Woodwell was also one of the first scientists to recognize the threats to nature and human life associated with rising levels of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. In 1972, he convened a conference, Carbon and the Biosphere, at Brookhaven, Long Island, attended by 50 internationally recognized climatologists, oceanographers, and biologists. It was the first international meeting ever held on what is now called climate change.

In 1979, Dr. Woodwell one of four scientists asked by the Carter administration to prepare a report on the ecological consequences of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The group provided foresight to James Gustave Speth, then chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

“Its contents were alarming,” Mr. Speth wrote in his 2004 book, “Red Sky at Morning.” “The report predicted ‘a warming likely to be significant within the next 20 years,’ and called for early action.”

In June 1988, as a severe drought gripped the Great Plains and the Midwest, Dr. Woodwell before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee with three other scientists, including James E. Hansen, then director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. They warned that it was 99 percent certain that the buildup of carbon dioxide and other man-made gases in the atmosphere was already responsible for global warming — and that it could be catastrophic.

“I said the same things then that I say now,” said Dr. Woodwell in an interview with The New York Times in 2007. “Climate change has the potential to change the Earth as much as nuclear war.”

Dr. Woodwell had by now built up a reputation for drawing such formidable conclusions from his research.

As a young ecologist at Brookhaven National Laboratory, he published an article in the journal Science in 1964 describing how DDT remained in the soil of heavily sprayed forests for years. In 1967, he published separate articles in Science and Scientific American reporting on how DDT was building up in the food chain of an estuary on the east side of Long Island’s Great South Bay.

The three articles are seen as milestones in the national campaign that led to the federal ban on DDT in 1972. The findings were also essential to the legal and public campaign that Dr. Woodwell and Victor Yannacone Jr., a young lawyer from Long Island, argued in New York’s Suffolk County District Court to challenge the county’s program to spray DDT to control mosquitoes.

The scientific evidence prompted a state judge in 1966 to issue an injunction banning the spraying, the first court-ordered ban of its kind in the United States. Dr. Woodwell, Mr. Yannacone and two other leaders of the campaign followed the court order with an equally momentous decision in 1967 to create the Environmental Defense Fund, an entirely new kind of nonprofit organization staffed by lawyers and guided by a board of scientists.

“We signed the incorporation papers in my office in Brookhaven,” Dr. Woodwell said in the 2007 interview. “We knew what we were doing. We knew this put power in the hands of scientists that scientists had never had before.”

In 1985, Dr. Woodwell founded his own organization on Cape Cod, Mass. It was initially called the Woods Hole Research Center, but it was renamed the Woodwell Climate Research Center in 2020. He stepped down as president and director in 2005, but remained with the organization as director emeritus.

George Masters Woodwell was born on October 23, 1928, in Cambridge, Mass., the only son and eldest of two children of Philip and Virginia (Sellers) Woodwell, both of whom taught in the Boston public school system. The family owned a 140-acre farm in York, Maine, where George spent many of his childhood summers. He indicated that his time on the farm instilled in him a love of the land, forests and nature.

He received a degree in botany from Dartmouth College in 1950, following a family tradition of Dartmouth graduates that began with both of his grandfathers and continued with his father. He served three years in the U.S. Navy and then went to Duke University, where he completed his doctoral studies in 1958.

Dr. Woodwell became a sought-after mentor for the activists, researchers, and lawyers who built modern environmentalism. He was generous with his time and actively participated on the boards of regional, state, and national organizations serving every wing of the American environmental movement.

In 1970, Mr. Speth was among a group of young Yale-educated lawyers who recruited Dr. Woodwell as a founding board member of the Natural Resources Defense Council. In 1982, Dr. Woodwell helped Mr. Speth establish the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based global environmental research institute.

Dr. Woodwell has served as chairman of the board of directors of the World Wildlife Fund and as chairman of the Ruth Mott Fund, a Midwest foundation active in supporting grassroots environmental groups, and as a board member of Living on Earth, a weekly environmental program. on NPR.

In 1990, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and has received numerous awards, including the Heinz Environmental Award in 1996, the John H. Chafee Excellence in Environmental Affairs Award in 2000, and the Volvo Environment Prize in 2001.

Dr. Woodwell is survived by his wife, Katharine; four children, Caroline, Marjorie, Jane, and John Woodwell; and four grandchildren.

Alex Traub contributed to the reporting.

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