Tim Appenzeller

2005 Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism–Features Winner

Tim Appenzeller received the Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism at the Joint Assembly Honors Ceremony, which was held on 25 May 2005, in New Orleans, Louisiana. The award honors “a single article or radio/television report that makes geophysical material accessible and interesting to the general public.”


When National Geographic began plans to address the issue of global climate change, we asked Tim Appenzeller to write the keystone piece for a series of articles that would document the most recent scientific consensus. His description of the carbon cycle in “The Case of the Missing Carbon” would be a fundamental part of the entire package. To explain that complex, finely calibrated global mechanism to six million readers was the task we set before him.

A daunting task perhaps, but not for Tim Appenzeller, a science journalist with great talent for precise thinking and elegant writing. “The Case of the Missing Carbon” lays it all out, tracing the circulation of carbon between air, land, and water that sustains life on Earth and controls its climate.

But that was only part of the story Appenzeller needed to tell. Humans have disrupted the cycle, releasing carbon prematurely from its natural reservoirs. For centuries we’ve been clearing forests and burning coal, oil, and gas, pouring carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere faster than plants and oceans can soak them up. The atmosphere’s carbon dioxide level is higher now than it’s been for hundreds of thousands of years. It’s as if we’re piling extra blankets on the planet, Appenzeller says, and, as a result, global temperatures are shooting up faster than at any other time in the past thousand years. Glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising, seasons are changing.

For now, as Appenzeller points out, oceans and forests provide the sinks that absorb roughly half of the eight billion metric tons of carbon that humanity pours into the atmosphere each year. But what happens if nature withdraws its helping hand? Scientists are seeking schemes to pump more carbon back into ocean depths, to grow more forests to absorb it, to send the carbon that humans have tapped from the Earth back where it came from-into coal seams, old oil and gas fields, or deep, porous rock formations.

But no one knows how well such schemes might work, and, as Appenzeller says, there’s no time to dither. There’s little doubt that unless societies lessen their dependence on fossil fuels, the carbon cycle will fly further out of balance. If our carbon sinks hold out or even grow, we might have extra decades in which to wean the global economy from carbon-emitting energy sources. If not, we face the likelihood of drastic climate changes even before 2050, a disaster too close to avoid.

We at National Geographic congratulate Tim Appenzeller on his receipt of the Walter Sullivan Award, richly deserved for his work on a story of immense importance to all of us who inhabit this planet. We also honor him as our new senior editor for science, and look forward to the years ahead, as he enriches our magazine and the millions who read it every month.

—LYNN ADDISON, National Geographic, Washington, D.C.


This is a great honor, and it has a special meaning for me because of how I got into science writing in the first place. Twenty-odd years ago I was working at an outfit called Time-Life Books, now long gone (though some of you may have the old book series weighting down your shelves). I started out on a book series called Home Repair, and then my bosses moved me to one called Planet Earth, where I wrote about the atmosphere, plate tectonics, and minerals. I was hooked. I hadn’t really known what I wanted to do, and I then realized that science writing was a way to learn all kinds of fascinating things and share them with readers. So for me, the Walter Sullivan Award is a special pleasure because it comes from Earth scientists. You’re the ones who got me into this business.

I have a lot of other people to thank, starting with Dennis Dimick, the head of illustrations at National Geographic, who realized that if any magazine could persuade readers that human influence on climate is a reality-and not just a noisy debate in Washington -ours could. He dreamed up the idea of a series of articles that would document how climate is changing and why, with this story on the carbon cycle to lay the groundwork. My editor, Lynn Addison, had the confidence to give me the assignment and the wisdom not to panic when I complained, at various points, that there was no way I could find a narrative thread in the carbon cycle and that there just wasn’t enough to say for a 5000-word article. She just told me it would turn out fine, which it did, with her help.

One of the greatest delights of reporting about Earth science is the generosity of most scientists. I mean generosity with the time it takes to explain something complex to an ignorant reporter, but also generosity in telling what you know. I live and work in Washington, and my political reporter friends spend lots of time and energy pursuing people who won’t talk or, when they do, don’t tell the truth. Sure, there’s spin in science too, and science writers need to be alert for it. But scientists are ultimately in the business of pursuing the truth, and telling other people what they find.

So I’ve had the good luck to end up in an area of journalism where the sources are willing, even eager, to share. And what they have to share is just so interesting. So as I thank the American Geophysical Union for this award, I want to thank you as a community for all that sharing with me and my fellow journalists.

—TIM APPENZELLER, National Geographic, Washington, D.C.