Estella Bergere Leopold dies at 97; found climate clues in ancient pollen


Aldo Leopold was widely regarded as the most important American ecologist of the 20th century and a founder of the modern conservation movement. His five children all followed his lead, going into the natural sciences and becoming outspoken advocates for environmental protection.
Estella Bergere Leopold, a botanist who examined ancient pollen to illuminate the effects of climate change — and who, as the last child of the pioneering environmentalist Aldo Leopold, helped preserve her father’s legacy as a founder of the modern conservation movement — died on Feb. 25 at a retirement home in Seattle. She was 97.
Estella Leopold was, strictly speaking, a palynologist, meaning that she studied pollen, in her case in its fossilized form. She extracted it from rocks formed by ancient marshes and shallow seas, then analyzed it for clues about long-ago changes in climate.
Some of her earliest breakthroughs came after studying fossilized pollen deposited along coasts (or what had been coasts at the time) and those found further inland. The further inland a plant species, she found, the more rapid its evolution, thanks to wider swings in seasonal temperatures — a clue to how modern climate change could drive faster evolution as well.
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She was also an ecologist and an environmental activist, drawing inspiration from her father long after his death in 1948.
During the first part of her career, working for the U.S. Geological Survey in Colorado, she led the fight to protect the fossil-rich Florissant Valley, southwest of Denver, from developers intent on building suburbs.
She helped found a group, the Defenders of Florissant, which pushed for legislation protecting the area while also filing legal action to block development. In 1969, after several fraught years and with backhoes poised to begin work, Congress passed a law setting aside the valley as the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument.
After working for the Geological Survey for two decades, Ms. Leopold moved to Seattle to run the Quaternary Research Center at the University of Washington, where she was also a professor.
There she turned her attention to seismic research, and over several years, mapped the fault line that runs beneath Seattle. After the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980, she led the successful effort to make the peak a national monument as a way to preserve it for researchers.
In 1982, Ms. Leopold and her siblings created the Aldo Leopold Foundation to further their father’s legacy and promote environmental awareness.
“We all have this love for the land, and Aldo Leopold’s work is not of the past but is today’s work,” she said at a 1998 conference in her father’s honor. “It has sprouted an awareness of many new fields, on the cutting edge of ecological implications today.”
Estella Bergere Leopold was born on Jan. 8, 1927, in Madison, Wisconsin. Her father taught at the University of Wisconsin, and her mother, Estella (Bergere) Leopold, assisted him with his research.
Aldo Leopold was best known for promoting the wilderness preservation movement, urging governments to set aside vast tracts of untouched land for its own sake rather than for recreation. When she was 8, her family moved to a farm on the Wisconsin River, where her father wrote the book that made him famous, “A Sand County Almanac.”
She was the youngest of five siblings: A. Starker Leopold was a zoologist, Luna Leopold a hydrologist, Carl Leopold a plant physiologist and Nina Leopold Bradley a conservationist.
“I was quite young, and Father asked what I wanted to be,” Ms. Leopold told On Wisconsin, a University of Wisconsin alumni magazine, in 2011. “I said, ‘A bugologist.’ And he said, ‘What?! Why is that?’ And I said, ‘Because everything else is taken.’”
She settled on botany instead. She received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1948, a master’s from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1950 and a doctorate from Yale in 1955, all in botany.
No immediate family members survive.
Ms. Leopold retired from the University of Washington faculty in 2000 but remained active in the environmental movement. She wrote a number of books about her life and her family, including “Saved in Time: The Fight to Establish Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado” (2012) and “Stories From the Leopold Shack: Sand County Revisited” (2016).
In 2010, she received the International Cosmos Award, a $500,000 prize given by the Expo ’90 Foundation of Japan for promoting “the harmonious coexistence between nature and mankind.”
She was also a longtime member of the National Academy of Sciences, having been inducted in 1974. Two of her brothers, Starker and Luna, were already there; it was the first time three siblings served as members of the institution.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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