When science came calling for James Galloway in the mid-1970s, he was a potter building garden planters in a Virginia pool hall that he and friends had converted into a craft cooperative. He had recently earned a doctorate in chemistry from the University of California at San Diego, but after receiving the degree he felt burned out by academia. Instead, with his wife Nancy (a pastel artist and potter) and a group of jewelers, wood workers, and weavers, he spent his days throwing clay on a potter’s wheel.
“Then I got this letter from a colleague working on this thing he called ‘acid rain,’” Galloway said. These were the early days of the newly identified phenomenon, in which rain and snow are made dangerously acidic largely through vehicle and industrial pollution, which causes acid-sensitive fish, animals, and plants on land and at sea to die. Galloway’s colleague wanted to know if he’d be interested in getting back into science through post-doctoral research on precipitation chemistry at Cornell University.
“I was interested because I missed science,” Galloway said. “Plus I was really tired of making 100 planters at a time.”
Galloway, who turns 72 this month, remembers it as a heady and sometimes contentious time; people in various industries debated the validity and significance of acidic rainfall. But lakes were dying from New England to Canada to Scandinavia, and in the late 1970s, scientists studying the inshore waters on Bermuda discovered high acidity rain on the island. When they suspected emissions from North America blowing 600 miles on westerly winds to Bermuda, they called Galloway, who by then was an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science at the University of Virginia.
“They flew me to the island and we started a little project to take some initial measurements,” Galloway said. Their research project grew, eventually involving ships and airplanes that swept the region taking air and rainwater samples and confirmed the long-range transport of pollutants from North America. Specifically, they found that storms coming from the west had higher sulfate, higher nitrate, and lower pH than storms from the east.
“This was really the first time anyone had looked at the extent of long-range transfer of sulfate,” which can damage human health when inhaled into lungs, he said. Stricter policies implemented through the Clean Air Act in the U.S. decreased nitrate and sulfur concentrations, as well as decreased their transport over the ocean.
“We could see how a policy to protect human health and ecosystems within the U.S. also had great benefit outside the country,” he said.
Galloway’s research with scientists on Bermuda also bonded him to the island. “I asked a lot of questions about the science happening on Bermuda, and they knew they had me hooked,” he said. In 1982, when colleagues at BIOS (then the Bermuda Biological Station for Research) asked him to join the board, he accepted.
He served as vice president of the board for a decade beginning in 1987, followed by another seven years as president, ceasing his role when he became the chairman of the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia. He has remained active on the board, and in 2012 chaired the search committee at BIOS that lead to the appointment of William Curry as the Institute’s president and director.
Galloway’s work on acid rain sparked his curiosity about the nitrogen cycle, and lead to his development of the “nitrogen cascade” to describe the impacts of fertilizer and fossil fuel byproducts. The “nitrogen cascade” represents the myriad, complex, and linked impacts that molecules of reactive nitrogen can have in the environment of the land-atmosphere-ocean system.
Accolades have followed. In 2008, he was recognized with the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement in recognition of his contributions to Earth system science through research on local and global biogeochemical processes as modified by human impact, and alerting the international community to the environmental consequences of these modifications. He was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2002 and a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union in 2008.
He has published over 200 articles, book chapters, reviews, and reports with more than a half dozen appearing in Science and Nature. He has 53 first authored peer-reviewed publications and 28 book chapters. In 2014 he was identified as a highly cited researcher in the area of Ecology and Environment in the report The World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds.
Galloway has been called a “pioneer and an exceptional leader” on global biogeochemical issues focusing on documenting and understanding the massive changes that are occurring in the global nitrogen cycle both through his own research as well as fostering a major international effort. During the heyday of his acid rain research, he helped to establish more than 100 sites in the U.S. dedicated to sampling, collecting, and monitoring rainwater acidity.
He remains dedicated to BIOS’s work. “I have a great place in my heart for the place,” he said. On September 16th he spoke about nutrient pollution on behalf of BIOS and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole. Mass. at the “Our Ocean” conference, hosted by the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C.
He also said he is impressed by the work of Curry and board chairman Bill Charrier to bring on young, dynamic hires (including, most recently, Damian Grundle, a 39-year-old chemical oceanographer who joined the BIOS faculty in May. His current projects involve investigating how dissolved oxygen concentrations, or the amount of gaseous oxygen dissolved in water, impacts the production of the chemical compound nitrous oxide, a gas that reacts with ozone and contributes to global warming.).
“I certainly have a soft spot for any young person who is spending their time on the nitrogen cycle,” Galloway said. “I can’t wait to meet him.”