Courtesy of Cornell University

Prof. Robert Howarth, ecology and evolutionary biology, has conducted cutting-edge climate research throughout his career.

March 1, 2023

Prof. Robert Howarth’s Climate Research, Outreach Makes Waves Throughout Career

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From leading a Cornell research lab to being featured in The New York Times, Prof. Robert Howarth, ecology and evolutionary biology, has spent his career studying and educating the public on climate change.

Howarth began studying the environment, ecosystems and biology early in his academic career. He earned a B.A. from Amherst College before going on to earn a Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Howarth reflected upon an undergraduate internship at Brookhaven National Laboratory, an experience that helped shape his further career path. 

“When I was an undergraduate, I didn’t know if I wanted to be a scientist or if I wanted to be an environmental lawyer or a policy person — someone out there making a real difference,” Howarth said. “[At Brookhaven Lab] I worked with a really fantastic group. I was doing the same kind of work that I’ve ended up doing for my career but also heavily engaged in issues such as how deforestation in the Amazon was affecting climate change.”

Howarth’s career at Cornell has extended for over three decades. He taught in the College of Arts and Sciences for eight years, before the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences asked him to accept an endowed professorship as the David R. Atkinson professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. Currently, Howarth teaches Ecology and Evolutionary Biology 1610: Introductory Biology: Ecology and the Environment.

Upon arriving at the University, Howarth began his research, co-leading a lab with Roxanne Marino Ph.D. ’01 — whom Howarth referred to as the lab’s chemistry expert. Howarth said that he has worked with Marino for about 40 years, even before beginning his position at Cornell. 

Several other faculty members are part of the lab, including Dennis Swaney, the lab’s coordinator of modeling and Melanie Hayn ’04 M.S. ’12 Ph.D. ’23, who works remotely from the Ecosystems Center at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Visiting fellow Tom Butler, manager of the Ithaca precipitation chemistry site for the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, works for the lab as well. 

“The thing that ties us together is [that], within earth system science, one of our subdisciplines is biogeochemistry, which is the interplay of how the chemistry of the environment affects life on Earth [and] ecological function, but also how biology affects environmental chemistry — including climate change,” Howarth said.

The Howarth-Marino lab has studied various environmental, biological and ecological topics, including methane emissions from oil and gas, the impact of nitrogen pollution on aquatic ecosystems, harmful algal blooms and how climate, agriculture and urbanism affect nutrient fluxes in major rivers around the world. 

Howarth expressed appreciation for the wide range of research projects in which he has participated. 

“One of the things I’ve valued hugely over what we’ve been able to do is [that] we do work on a large number of different topics that can change over time. If you get bored with something or frustrated, we’ve been able to switch and move on to other topics,” Howarth said. “If I had to narrow down and pick one topic I spent my life working on, I think I would have been bored to tears decades ago.”

One of Howarth’s most notable research projects is a 2011 paper on the methane emissions of natural gas, which he co-published with Prof. Anthony Ingraffea, civil and environmental engineering. Howarth first gained interest in the topic upon returning home from a sabbatical in Paris during the spring of 2009.

“When I came home, everyone — students, people in the community, everyone across New York state — was really upset about the fact that the oil and gas industry was talking about coming into New York State,” Howarth said.

Howarth explained that President George H.W. Bush and President Barack Obama, the two U.S. presidents during the time of natural gas’s rising popularity, supported the development of the energy source, emphasizing that natural gas produced fewer carbon dioxide emissions than fossil fuels.

“While that’s true that carbon dioxide emissions go down [with natural gas], there’s a substantial amount of methane emitted from it,” Howarth said, recounting his response to the discourse surrounding natural gas at the time. “It could [maybe] be that it’d be worse for the climate than using coal.”

Howarth and Ingraffea embarked on their research project, delving into the potential unknown consequences of widespread natural gas use. Howarth predicted that news outlets would be interested in covering the paper’s release, citing the study’s novel research question and results. 

Several weeks before the paper was published, Howarth contacted The New York Times about running an exclusive — the paper would be released to the Times several weeks in advance, allowing the newspaper to publish a feature before any other news outlet.

In addition to his feature in the Times, Time Magazine named Howarth and Ingraffea two of their ‘People that Mattered’ in 2011. The list included public figures such as Hillary Clinton, Warren Buffet and Steve Jobs.

“We made the front page of [the business section of] The New York Times the day the article came out, but 1,400 other newspapers covered the article,” Howarth said. “And Time Magazine named us jointly — together with Mark Ruffalo, the actor — as runners up because of the [paper’s] newsworthiness and how it impacted the debate about whether shale gas should really go forward or not.”

Despite the positive media attention, Howarth faced criticism from the oil and gas industries. In an attempt to discredit his work, the oil and gas industry hacked into his computer and stole an advanced copy of the paper. They gave the copy to The Hill, a newspaper focused on politics and business, Howarth said.

“The Hill published an article about our work three days before our paper came out and before the New York Times could do an exclusive,” Howarth said. “It was amazingly stressful. It probably took 10 years off my life. But it was worth it.”

Though his paper on natural gas gained the most media attention, Howarth’s other work has been influential as well. In total, among peer-reviewed papers authored by other researchers, Howarth’s work has been cited around 79,000 times. 

In addition to publishing his research, Howarth has spoken about climate change with leaders across the world. He has given briefings at the White House, the United Nations and the European Parliament. 

Howarth also serves on the Climate Action Council for New York State, a 22-member body aiming to help New York cut statewide greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent before 2050. He was appointed to the council by Carl Heastie, the Speaker of the New York State Assembly.

In the near future, Howarth said he plans to continue with existing research, but he does not plan to take on new students or extensive projects within his lab. Overall, Howarth expressed satisfaction for the trajectory of his career.

“I’m reaching a stage where I’m not quite ready to retire, but I’m not quite ready to expand my research program… It’s a nice time to be happy with where I am,” Howarth said. “Much to my surprise, I feel like our research has had quite an impact on the world.”

This story is a part of the Professor Profiles series, which aims to highlight professors and their research across Cornell’s campus. Have a professor to recommend for this series? Email [email protected]!