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Roger Revelle

        Science | American Biologists

Revelle, Roger (1900-1991), was an American oceanographer, a scientist who studies the ocean. His pioneering work in deep-sea research contributed to plate tectonics, the modern theory that explains the origin of most of the major features of the earth's surface. Revelle also took an early interest in environmental and population-control issues that remain important concerns today.

Roger Randall Dougan Revelle was born on March 7, 1909, in Seattle. In 1929, he received a B.A. degree in geology from Pomona College (now Claremont College) in Claremont, California. He entered the University of California at Berkeley in 1930.

In 1931, Revelle became a graduate research assistant at the University of California's Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Revelle served as a research assistant at Scripps from 1931 to 1936. During that time, he studied samples of deep-sea mud and sediment from the Pacific Ocean floor. Revelle received his Ph.D. degree in oceanography from the University of California in 1936. He was then named an instructor at Scripps. In the late 1930's, he participated in two research expeditions in the Gulf of California. In 1941, Revelle was promoted to assistant professor.

From 1942 to 1945, during World War II (1939-1945), Revelle was in charge of the oceanographic section of the U.S. Navy's Bureau of Ships. In 1946, Revelle helped establish the Office of Naval Research. As chief of the office's geophysics section from 1946 to 1947, he supervised measurements taken during an atomic bomb test conducted by the U.S. government off Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean.

Revelle returned to Scripps in 1948 as a full professor of oceanography and assistant director of the institution. He was director from 1951 to 1964. Scripps expanded greatly under his leadership.

Revelle led two of the Scripps Institution's South Pacific expeditions in 1950 and 1952. These and other Scripps expeditions surveyed deep trenches and other features of the ocean floor. On the 1950 expedition, Revelle and his research team built a device to measure the amount of heat flowing upward through the ocean floor from inside the earth. Revelle's team measured greater amounts of this heat than the scientists expected. This discovery led Revelle to believe that hot material was flowing beneath the ocean floor. This idea in turn led to the theory of plate tectonics, which other scientists developed later in the 1950's and 1960's. According to this theory, the earth has an outer shell made up of about 30 huge, rigid pieces called tectonic plates. The plates slowly move about on a layer of rock that is so hot it flows, even though it remains solid. Revelle also participated in a Scripps expedition to the North Pacific in 1953.

In 1956, Revelle proposed the creation of a new University of California campus at San Diego (UCSD). It was established in 1959, and Revelle held the post of dean of the School of Sciences and Engineering in addition to his Scripps position.

In 1957, Revelle and another oceanographer, Hans Suess, published a paper introducing the idea of global warming, an increase in the average temperature of the earth's surface. They suggested that the burning of such fossil fuels as gasoline and coal had increased the amounts of heat-trapping atmospheric gases, which they believed produced a faster rise in surface temperatures than would otherwise occur. This process has since become known as the greenhouse effect. Later that year, largely as a result of Revelle's lobbying efforts, gas recorders were set up in Hawaii and at the South Pole to measure changes in the atmosphere. Also in 1957, Revelle helped organize the International Geophysical Year of 1957--1958.

Revelle took a leave of absence from Scripps from 1961 to 1963 to serve as science adviser to Stewart Udall, the U.S. secretary of the interior. In 1964, Revelle helped establish the Deep Sea Drilling Project to explore the ocean floors. Later that year, Revelle resigned his position at Scripps and took a leave of absence from UCSD to found the Harvard University Center for Population Studies. He directed the center from 1964 to 1975. During that time, he published a number of books concerning management of the world's population and resources.

Revelle returned to UCSD in 1975 as professor of science and public policy, a position he held until his death. He received the National Medal of Science in 1990. Revelle died in San Diego on July 15, 1991, from complications following a heart attack.