Alan Longhurst 1925-2023: oceanographer and climate skeptic

by Javier Vinós

Alan Longhurst died last December 7th in the hospital of Figeac in Occitanie (France), where he had been admitted a few days earlier following a fall in nearby Cajarc, the small town where he lived.

Alan has authored numerous posts at Climate Etc. and is also author of the book Doubt and Certainty in Climate Science. 

He was born in Plymouth (United Kingdom) on March 5, 1925. He served his country at the end of World War II and was discharged in 1948. On his last assignment in Ethiopia, Alan fell in love with the lush wildlife of the savannah and decided to study zoology and ecology in London.

After completing his Ph.D., Alan returned to Africa in 1955 and began working in fisheries in Sierra Leone, which he continued five years later in Lagos, Nigeria, after a brief stay in New Zealand. A visit three years later from a representative of the U.S. Tuna Boat Owners Association changed his destiny. He told him that the Scripps Oceanographic Institute in La Jolla, California, was looking for someone like him to join their tuna oceanography group. Three months later, Alan was working in California. His wife, Françoise Bergeret, went with him. She was a graduate of the Institut d’études politiques de Paris and worked as an interpreter for the UN. They had met in Nigeria the previous year (1962) and traveled to La Jolla as newlyweds. Their children, Claire and Nicholas, later joined the family.

Alan found the scientific environment at Scripps very stimulating. His lab neighbor, Walter Munk , was studying the dynamics of tidal motion at the bottom of the ocean. It was in this environment that Alan first considered studying the vertical distribution of plankton in the course of the 1967-68 survey of the entire El Niño region coordinated by his institution, the US Bureau of Commercial Fisheries (now NOAA Fisheries), which after numerous cruises resulted in the 11-volume EASTROPAC Atlas. As director of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, he coordinated the project. No one had studied the vertical distribution of plankton before, so Alan designed a new instrument to do so, the Longhurst-Hardy Plankton Recorder. This was one of his seminal contributions to marine biology.

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When NOAA was formed in 1970, he was director of the La Jolla Laboratory of the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, which was integrated with other West Coast laboratories and separated from Scripps. He was promoted to head NOAA operations from the California coast to Hawaii, an administrative position that took him away from the research he loved. So in 1971 he accepted a research position in his hometown of Plymouth, where the Longhurst family spent a few happy years in an old farmhouse on Dartmoor.

In 1977, Alan was recruited to the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Nova Scotia, Canada, as Director of the Marine Ecology Laboratory. It was there that his career would culminate, as he became Director-General of the Institute from 1980-86 and continued to work there until his retirement in 1995. His other seminal contribution to oceanography came during these years. Alan had observed the importance of phytoplankton cycles and the conditions that drive them in ocean ecosystems. As a pioneer in the use of satellites to observe changes in plankton, he was able to demonstrate the existence of biogeochemical provinces in oceanic regions. His 1995 paper, the most cited in the Journal of Plankton Research, gave rise to the concept of the ecological geography of the sea, which led to a successful book of the same name in 1998 and a second edition in 2007. This book remains an essential study for understanding marine ecology.

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Alan retired in 1995 and went to live with Françoise in Cajarc, where she opened a non-profit art gallery, Galerie l’Acadie, which exhibited works by local artists until it closed in early 2022. On December 22, 2022, Françoise died unexpectedly, leaving Alan completely devastated. It was the beginning of a phase in Alan’s life that he had not wished for. At the age of 98, he contemplated the end of his life without anxiety, waiting peacefully while looking at the sky of the South of France (le Midi) and occupying himself with everyday things, without forgetting the scientific questions that had always occupied him.

Alan Longhurst, the climate sceptic

His Wikipedia page, compiled by his friends at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, barely mentions his climate scepticism, which is understandable given the scientific disrepute it currently carries. But Alan’s skepticism has been central to the last 26 years of his life, ever since his wife Françoise, trying to keep him from getting bored with the simple life in the French countryside, told him in 1997 that maybe he should start taking an interest in the climate issues that were making so many headlines.

Like me, Alan started from a position of confidence in the work of climate scientists. But he had the experience of virtually every year of oceanographic cruises that had taken him all over the world’s seas and oceans, and he had a deep understanding of the clear response of marine species to climate changes. In addition, Alan had a vast knowledge of the literature and studies of decades and centuries of ocean biology and conditions, including those conducted by the British Navy. One of his main complaints was that all this knowledge, obtained with great scientific rigor, was being completely ignored in the study of climate change, and that everything prior to the significant increase in our emissions was no longer ignored, but unknown to current scientists. He commented on how some of his published observations on the effects of nitrogen upwelling off the California coast on tuna populations had been republished as if they were new by a group in Northern California. He jokingly noted that a few months of research can often save a few hours at the library.

Such oceanographic and climate knowledge led him to a deep skepticism of the consensus proposed by the IPCC, which crystallized in several climate articles published on the Climate Etc. blog and in the writing of the book “Doubt and Certainty in Climate Science,” which took him several years to complete. Kip Hansen masterfully defined it in his review of the book as follows:

“Longhurst’s comprehension and recall of the details of hundreds of scientific papers from related and adjacent fields enter into this brilliant synopsis of the state of Climate Science – what doubts we still have and what, if any, certainty we can claim.”

However, the publishers of his oceanography books refused to publish a book that went against the prevailing climate dogma. This saddened Alan. If you have dedicated your life to science with honesty and integrity, it is not easy to deal with such rejection. It is an experience I share.

My first contact with Alan was in October, 2017. Not to be discouraged, Alan was working on a second edition of the book and wanted to use some figures I had made. It wasn’t until 2022 that he finally accepted that his book was unpublishable. I was in the process of publishing my first book, “Climate of the Past, Present and Future,” and offered to help him publish his. Alan enthusiastically accepted.

I began working on his book, helping him with text and figures, in early December, just weeks before Françoise’s unexpected death. Through our constant communication, I witnessed his most difficult months, when only the publication of his book and its positive reception brought him any joy. Gradually, Alan came to terms with what had happened, but it had hit him hard, and he complained about the immense task of dealing with the deceased’s unfinished business, legal and tax matters, and disposing of the large art collection that Françoise had accumulated, including a magnificent collection of African folk art that had been donated to a museum in Paris. He shared his home with a cat named “Cat” and still drove his little 40-year-old Peugeot, which he parked next to the cemetery wall, as if anticipating the end that is coming for us all. In one of his last messages in September, he said to me: “Javier, end of story – I am very lucky to be endig my life in this village… falcons nest on the cliff above the cemetery while our 40 year old car awaits its next passenger…”

His main scientific concern these days was the change he had noticed in the skies above Cajarc.

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“Why, for instance, in southwest France for about two years now has the lower atmosphere suddenly become smog-particle free and the upper atmosphere devoid of water vapour? Why for more than a year now have the Sun and Moon risen and set in milk white brilliance every cloudless day or night? Why, in the same period, have I observed no towering cumulus clouds? And although air traffic overhead is near normal, where are the habitual N-S and E-W contrail grids of yesteryear?”

He was an old-fashioned scientist, based on observation and experimentation, from which hypotheses should emerge, not the other way around as happens in climate science. Therefore, his climate skepticism was intrinsic and not due to any conviction, but due to the lack of evidence to support the climate dogma and the abundant evidence of cyclical climate changes of natural origin, which by no means can stop working.

The last time I heard from him was in early November when I sent him a copy of my latest book, “Solving the Climate Puzzle.” His son told me he had it with him in the hospital. I will miss my friend Alan Longhurst and wish to join his children Claire, Nicholas and Maria and his grandchildren Liam, Olli, Bea and Emma in mourning his loss. Rest in peace.

JC note:   I am very appreciative of this obituary written by Javier


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