Kurt M. Cuffey

2003 James B. Macelwane Medal Winner

University of California

Kurt M. Cuffey was awarded the Macelwane Medal at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, which was held on 10 December 2003, in San Francisco, California. The medal honors “significant contributions to the geophysical sciences by a young scientist of outstanding ability.”


“Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising.’ Kurt Cuffey avoided the risk of being called promising by seeming to skip a career stage–transforming himself from graduate student to internationally recognized scientist so rapidly that few can recall if he endured a period of apprenticeship. By the time he received his doctorate from the University of Washington in 1999 he had 14 research publications to his credit, the majority of these having nothing whatsoever to do with his thesis topic and everything to do with his scientific curiosity and intellectual rigor.

“Kurt’s colleagues regard him as the brightest young glaciologist in the world today and one of the most influential thinkers to emerge in glaciology and paleoclimatology in the last decade. He has a seemingly magisterial understanding that spans glaciology at all scales–from the fine details of ice fabric and chemistry to the scale of global biogeochemical cycles. He is perhaps best known for his studies unifying ice core paleoclimatology and ice sheet dynamics and has been at the forefront of research on the isotopic stratification and climate record preserved in polar ice cores.

“Among many accomplishments, Kurt has pioneered the use of borehole thermometry to obtain a temperature calibration of the oxygen isotope record in ice cores from Summit Greenland. Such calibrations are enormously important because they permit the isotopic time series to be reliably converted to a record of surface temperature variation. Using this paleothermometer, he demonstrated that the temperature changes were much larger than previously assumed and that the switch from glacial to Holocene conditions was associated with a 15°C warming in central Greenland. This research and subsequent studies deliver the bad news that the climate system is capable of large and rapid changes which are amplified in polar regions.

“Another significant contribution concerns the relationship between the records of atmospheric carbon dioxide and temperature in the Vostok ice core from East Antarctica. Covariation of carbon dioxide and temperature is an obvious feature of the data, but the crucial scientific question is whether the atmospheric CO2 concentration is a climate forcing or expresses an environmental response to changing thermal conditions. The postulate that CO2 is an important forcing is seemingly contradicted by a mismatch between the temperature and CO2 records at the onset of the last ice age evidence that challenges the common wisdom about greenhouse gas influences and that could be put to mischievous use. By a shrewd analysis Cuffey and Vimeux laid the question to rest. Science like this is not just at the cutting edge, it has a cutting edge.

“Kurt Cuffey’s research is driven by questions, not methods. He uses a great range of appropriate tools with skill and precision, from finite elements to chain saws, but his primary research tool is his mind. His breadth and creativity are astonishing. I join Kurt’s many admirers in paying tribute to his scientific achievements in the certain knowledge that the past is prologue to a brilliant future.”

—GARRY CLARKE, University of British Columbia, Canada


“Thank you, Garry, for that delightful citation. Your keen insights and effortless urbanity are an inspiration for the rest of us in glaciology and Quaternary science. I am honored to have you speak on my behalf.

“One of the best aspects of these awards is the opportunity they provide to highlight connections within the geophysical community. Allow me to accept the Macelwane Medal and thank the AGU by simply recounting my massive indebtedness to some of our esteemed colleagues.

“As an undergraduate at Penn State, I met the amazing Richard Alley, who plows new tracks across the intellectual landscape with the unstoppability of a Yukon mining dredge. Generous and kind, Richard jump-started my research career and convinced me that glaciology is a field with many exciting and important questions. Such was the depth of my undergraduate research involvement that many people now think I was Richard’s graduate student.

“They are wrong, of course. I subsequently spent 7 years in graduate school at the University of Washington, engaged in a multitude of explorations glaciologic and geomorphologic. No single person can make a perfect graduate advisor. I solved this problem by, de facto, having four advisors: Bernard Hallet, who defies convention by being both broad and deep; Charlie Raymond, master of all things glacial and a model for rigor in the Earth sciences; Ed Waddington, another glaciologic master whose open-door policy offered abundant access to his expertise; and Howard Conway, consummate field scientist and my candidate for single most generous individual in the academic world.

“In pursuit of the broad intellectual life, I subsequently joined the faculty of UC Berkeley’s Department of Geography, an eclectic mix of remarkable and curious minds. This group of (mostly) social scientists accurately perceived the power and importance of the geophysical approach to environmental scholarship. Though a specialist in urban landscapes and Latin America, chairman Michael Johns has been particularly adept and vigorous in strengthening this facet of our department. I am equally grateful for my strong ties to many of the superb environmental scientists at Berkeley, especially Bill Dietrich, Jim Kirchner, Inez Fung, and Mary Power.

“Almost all the work I do is collaborative in important respects, and I celebrate this fact. Without collaboration, I would have accomplished little research of significant value. In particular, I warmly thank Shawn Marshall, Francoise Vimeux, and Jeff Kavanaugh for stimulating and productive interactions over the past 5 years. Our work emerges from the rich tradition of ice dynamics and ice core research epitomized by luminaries like Garry Clarke, Bob Bindschadler, Sigfus Johnsen, Jean Jouzel, and many others.

“Finally, no accounting of my indebtedness, however abbreviated, would be appropriate without thanking my parents, who instilled in me an appreciation for the power of learning and for the beauty of Earth. Their values and encouragement prepared me to walk into Richard Alley’s office 15 years ago.

“I thank all of you, and I look forward to many more years of exploration and learning together, and conversing in the cavernous halls of Moscone Center.”

—KURT M. CUFFEY, University of California, Berkeley