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University of Wisconsin–Madison

John Kutzbach - 1937-2021

January 30, 2021

Dear AOS Family and friends,

The University of Wisconsin – Madison Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences regrets to inform of the passing of Professor Emeritus John E. Kutzbach on 29 January 2021. Professor Kutzbach was a professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences from 1966 until his retirement in 2002. He was also former director and Senior Scientist of the UW-Madison Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research. A native of Wisconsin, Professor Kutzbach earned all of his degrees at UW-Madison: an undergraduate engineering degree in (1960), a M.S. degree (1961) and a Ph.D. (1966) in atmospheric sciences from the then Department of Meteorology.

John Kutzbach’s career contributions to climate science are expansive and foundational. Early in his career, his work introduced the use of empirical orthogonal functions (EOFs) to the atmospheric sciences to identify large-scale and long-period modes of atmospheric circulation. He then shifted into paleoclimate studies during the 1970s. That ground-breaking research used general circulation models to explore several problems including the role of earth’s orbital changes in producing the glacial/interglacial cycles and global monsoon cycles of the last few hundred thousand years; linkages between vegetation changes and climate changes; the role of uplift of mountains and plateaus in producing major climatic changes over the past ten million years; and the role of geographic changes associated with plate movements in producing climate changes over the past 250 million years.

As noted in the 2006 AGU citation for his Roger Revelle Medal award, “[t]hese and other studies are characterized by an impressive economy of design, clarity of interpretation, and depth of insight into the operation of the climate system. Together, this body of work forms a large part of the framework of our current understanding of past climates.” Prof. Kutzbach’s pioneering use of general circulation models for climate research broke ground for future generations of climate scientists to study past, present and future aspects of our earth system. Further his interdisciplinary work with geologists, geochemists, paleoecologists, glaciologists, archeologists, and hydrologists, helped identify and ultimately improve the quality of the output of the climate models that current earth system scientists use to develop climate projections. Reflecting the breadth of his research experiences, and his prescience in seeing the evolution of our science, he was a leading proponent of the renaming of the Department of Meteorology in the early 1990’s to the Department’s present name, Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences. Indeed, this change has helped ultimately in laying the foundations for a vigorous ocean sciences component to our department’s disciplinary reach – an important lasting legacy of Prof. Kutzbach’s service to our program. In recent years his work has focused on the impacts of climate and climate change on natural resources and society, past climates and past environments, how humans have contributed to climate change, and present-day climate variability and simulations of future climate changes.

His numerous, deep, and careful studies of the Earth’s climate system have earned him some of the highest honors in the geosciences: He was a recipient of the Roger Revelle Medal of the American Geophysical Union in 2006 (for outstanding contributions to Earth-system science), the Milankovitch Medal of the European Geophysical Society in 2001 (for pioneering and outstanding contributions to climate science), the Humboldt Research Award of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation of Germany in 1976, the Distinguished Career Achievement Award of the American Quaternary Association in 2003, and the International Science and Technology Award of China in 2017. In 2020, Professor Kutzbach was the recipient of our Department’s Alumni Achievement Award. He is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Meteorological Society. Professor Kutzbach was named a UW-Madison Planeart-Bascom Professor of Liberal Arts in 1990 and was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 2006.

Both Prof. Kutzbach and his wife Prof. Gisela Kutzbach were professors at UW - Madison. Their pride in their careers at the University of Wisconsin was evident in the warmth with which they welcomed new colleagues as they joined the Department. Prof. Kutzbach shared this story in his acceptance of the AGU Revelle award: ‘One characterization of university life that [he and his wife] fondly recall[ed] came long ago when one of our children answered her second grade teacher’s question—“What does your father do?”—with the confident answer, “He works at the Universe.” ’

Prof. John E. Kutzbach’s career accomplishments helped all of us better understand important aspects of our universe – in particular, those of the Earth’s climate system – and those insights will allow us to prepare ably for its anticipated changes.

Here is the video of Prof. Kutzbach’s last AOS Department colloquium from April 8, 2019, entitled “Our Roots: Early hominid dispersal out of Africa since 140,000 years ago: the possible role of orbitally forced and glacial-age changes on the African/Arabian summer monsoons and Mediterranean winter storm tracks”

Prof. Kutzbach is survived by his wife Gisela Hanebuth Kutzbach their three children – Angela Kutzbach Currie, Katrina Kutzbach Martin, and Mark Kutzbach, and six grandchildren. The obituary (full obituary to be posted on Sunday January 31, 2021) can be found at Gunderson Funeral Home