OBITUARY

George Kukla

March 14, 1930May 31, 2014
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George Kukla, Contrarian Climate Scientist George Kukla, a climate scientist who was among the first to warn of the power of global climate change and inspire government study, died on May 31 at his home in Suffern, N.Y. The cause was an apparent heart attack; he was 84. In a career spanning more than five decades, much of it spent at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Kukla helped pioneer the modern understanding of how natural climate cycles work, and publicly warned that changing climate could affect humanity—though not in the sense that most scientists believe today. Synching climate records on land and at sea, he showed that ice ages in the last few million years were far more common than previously thought. Working from China and eastern Europe to Antarctica and Chile, he also helped to clarify the role that snow and ice, air pollutants, and other factors play in cooling earth’s climate. In the early 1970s, Kukla became a proponent of the idea that earth was veering toward another ice age—a view shared by prominent scientists at the time, when the planet did in fact seem to be cooling. Temperatures soon reversed course, as did most researchers. Kukla did not, and stuck with his global cooling hypothesis to the end. Still, he retained the respect of colleagues, many of whom were instrumental in turning his research on its head. “He wasn’t afraid to pose ideas that were new and different,” said a former student, David Robinson, now the state climatologist for New Jersey and a professor at Rutgers University. “He just had this knack for recognizing when something was important or interesting.” Jiří “George” Kukla was born on March 30, 1930 in Prague, Czechoslovakia, the son of Miloslav Kukla, who was then a city water engineer, and Jindriska Duskova, a seamstress who did piecework at home. A keen interest in the outdoors, especially caves, led Kukla to study geology at Prague’s Charles University, where he earned his PhD. in 1953. To earn extra money, he worked as a trolley conductor on a line that passed by the medical school where his sister and another trolley regular, Helena Kupka, studied. In a love note conveyed by his sister, Kukla asked Kupka out. They married in 1955. Kukla went to work as a government geologist and later, a climatologist at the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. With the country firmly in the Soviet Union’s orbit following World War II, scientists were pressed to assist its communist allies, and in 1961, Kukla and his family were sent to Cuba, where Kukla helped Fidel Castro’s regime find clay deposits for making porcelain. In his spare time, he scoured the island for climate records for his own research. The Kuklas returned home in 1966 to escalating tension with the Soviets and worsening oppression. Kukla came to Columbia in 1971, under a one-year exchange program. The Lamont scientist who lobbied for him, Wallace Broecker, soon became a founding father of modern climatology and was one of the first people to use the term “global warming.” Kukla managed to stay on, and in 1973 was hired as a senior staff scientist, eventually becoming an American citizen. Having endured Soviet rule, Kukla had learned to choose his words carefully. Once, in the United States, however, he became known for his bold, often outrageous, comments. Kukla helped champion the theory that ice ages come and go as the amount of sunlight falling on earth changes due to variations in earth’s orbit around the sun—an idea first proposed by Serbian mathematician Milutin Milanković in the 1920s, and now well accepted. Kukla also saw evidence that earth was now moving rapidly toward another ice age. Shortly after coming to Lamont, he organized a conference with Brown University geologist Robert Matthews on this idea. They summarized their findings in a 1972 paper in the journal Science, “When Will the Present Interglacial End?” They also wrote to President Richard Nixon of the potential for floods, snowstorms and deadly frosts, as well as “substantially lowered” food production; they warned that the Soviet Union was probably already considering a response. The White House reacted quickly. By 1973, the State Department formed a Panel on the Present Interglacial, and Congress held a series of hearings on the state of climate research and U.S. preparedness. A series of bills to create a national climate program were introduced; in 1979, President Carter signed the National Climate Program Act into law. The global cooling story captured the public imagination, propelling Kukla into cover stories in Time and Newsweek, a BBC special, “The Weather Machine,” and other popular media. Average temperatures had in fact been dipping in previous decades, possibly due to a short-term natural cycle and the effects of industrial smog. Global warming would soon replace fears about global cooling, but Kukla stuck to his contention that an ice age was due soon, at least in geological terms. At a symposium he organized at Columbia in 2000, he lengthened the time frame and put the coming ice age at 5,000 years from now. This view is not widely shared by scientists today, even without considering the warming expected from industrial carbon emissions. Because of his stance, Kukla became popular among groups that do not accept the theory of human-influenced climate change. In 2010, Kukla accepted an invitation to speak at a meeting sponsored by the Heartland Institute, a political group opposed to the theory that humans are warming the climate. (Kukla did say he believed some of the current warming was coming from human—just not all of it.) In his earlier work, Kukla showed that ice ages came and went relatively frequently over the last 2.6 million years. His evidence came from riverbanks in Czechoslovakia and Austria, where winds had deposited glacier-ground dust, or loess, during cold intervals. In a 1977 study, Kukla linked the ice ages found in loess deposits with those in deep-sea sediments, to document many more ice ages than previously recognized. Later, he and a colleague extended this work to China’s Loess Plateau. He also discovered that the last warm interval similar to ours today, about 130,000 years ago, was twice as long, and potentially as stable. In a 1997 study, he suggested that the next ice age could be further away than he had earlier anticipated. In 2003, the European Geosciences Union awarded Kukla its prestigious Milankovic Medal; in 2011, Czech Republic President Vaclav Klaus gave Kukla a national Medal of Merit. Despite retiring in 2001, Kukla continued to work on papers until his death. Before he passed away, the International Union for Quaternary Science organized a scientific meeting, dubbed “Kukla Loessfest,” which will be held in his honor in Poland this September. Kukla had already cheated death many times: after eating a poisonous root in New York’s Catskill Mountains; falling into a crevasse near Antarctica’s McMurdo Station; slashing his arm with a rusted coring device on the Black Sea in the Ukraine; and suffering a heart attack while swimming in the Hudson River at the age of 76. Once, after his station wagon broke down on the way home from a conference, Kukla coaxed it back to life by knocking the engine several times with a rock and dousing the battery with wine, recalled David Robinson, his former student. Colleagues loved Kukla’s impromptu pig roasts, which he sometimes organized in the woods near the Lamont labs, though some worried about the precarious-looking spit on which the meat and beans cooked. “We’d come back to work coughing out smoke, smelling like we’d been battling a forest fire,” said a fellow Lamont climate scientist, Jerry McManus. “He was more daring than most,” he added. “He liked to stir the pot a little bit.” Kukla is survived by his wife, Helena; younger sister, Iva Mala; daughter Susan Garber; son Michael; and two grandchildren.

Services

  • Visitation Thursday, June 5, 2014
  • Funeral Service Thursday, June 5, 2014
REMEMBERING

George Kukla

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Cynthia Sheridan

November 6, 2014

Dear Dr. Kukla,
I enjoyed reading about your husband's interesting life. It sounds like he had a very full life which he lived with vigor.

The Olcay Family

June 7, 2014

Sue, you and your family are in our thoughts during this difficult time.

June 5, 2014

Dear Dr. Kukla,
I am so deeply sorry for the loss of your beloved husband. I am grateful for the wonderful life you shared together. When I came to your home office during a snowstorm , he helped me dig my car out of the snow with no shoes or gloves on and was one of the nicest men I ever met in my life. My thoughts and prayers are with you.
Sincerely,
Janis Nasar

June 5, 2014

Mila Heleno,
myslim na tebe , Sue , Michala a sdilim vas smutek . Jirka byl vyjimecna osobnost , bajecny clovek a skvely pritel , Mela jsem stesti , ze se nase cesty krizovaly.
Jana P.(Montreal)

Milada

June 5, 2014

Dear Helena
moc mne mrzi ztrata Jiriho. Vzdy budu vzpominat na jeho charakterristicky smysl pro humor, ktery ti jiste take bude chybet... Ale preji Ti, aby prave vzpominky na jeho usmevavou tvar a jeho humor Ti po case pomohly prekonat smutek nad jeho ztratou. Love Milada

alan pazlar

June 5, 2014

I will always remember him as an amazing person. I was always very impressed by him, his manners and his wit. And I always appreciated his kindness and his sense of humor. I don't know if it fits but I'd say he was an uncommun-man.
Please accept my heartfelt condolences.

Sylvie Pazlar

June 5, 2014

Mila Heleno,

So very sorry for your loss. My thoughts and prayers are with you, Mike and Sue, as well as her boys. George was an extraordinary man. Alan and I loved him very much and often talk about our Summers and Christmases at your house! He will forever live in our hearts.

Thinking of you
Sylvie

Margaret Pages

June 5, 2014

Dearest Helena, Susan, Michael, and Families,
Our most heartfelt condolences on your loss. We are terribly sorry. You are all very dear and special to us. George will be greatly missed. I have such wonderful memories of him and all of you, growing up. Please know I am thinking of you today and will always treasure his memory in my heart.
All of our love,
Margaret & Ernest Pages and family

June 4, 2014

Dear Helena, We were so sorry to hear about your loss and wish to express our deepest sympathy to you and your family. Thinking of you, Mirek Novacek with family

Christine Hatte

June 4, 2014

I'll always remember our first meeting: I was young scientist and he was a so Famous name in paleoclimatology... he came to me after my presentation and proposed me to further discuss afer the meeting... I was under pression!! The George Kukla wanted to talk to me! We went to be the bar, he offered me a very very large dark beer and we spent several hours talking about isotopes and loess ... it was the most beautiful induction for a young paleoclimatologist. Many thanks George! You're a so special person. I won't never forget these couples of hours.
I wish to express my deepest sympathy to your family.
Christine Hatté (France)