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Petaluma Profile: Dr. Robert Bergstrom moves on

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Climate scientist Dr. Robert Bergstrom is moving his family and business out of Sonoma County.

“It’s not that we didn’t like Petaluma,” he explains. “Several of our people live here, and that’s why we originally moved the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute (BAER) into the Petaluma Foundry.”

The nonprofit educational Institute, which has cooperative agreements with NASA and other federal and state agencies for airborne science and mission support — as well as research in Earth sciences, astrophysics, heliophysics, and planetary science — has rapidly grown to over 120 employees.

“Increasingly, our people’s activities are centered at NASA/Ames at Moffett Field (in Mountain View),” Bergstrom says. “Even with telecommuting, our people end up traveling down to Silicon Valley several times a week. Which is why we are relocating BAER to Moffett Field by the end of the calendar year. It is more a result of the almost constant traffic crush on 101 than anything else.”

The Institute’s transition coincides with Robert and his wife’s move to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“It’s time,” he says. After serving a decade as Assistant Regional Council for the EPA’s western region in San Francisco, and co-founding the legal software company that created WillMaker, Bergstrom returned to science and founded the BAER nonprofit in 1992. “I’ve proudly helped it grow ever since,” he says, “and it’s time to step back a bit. We picked Santa Fe because my wife is a painter who loves the light there, and I’ll probably get involved in the Santa Fe nonprofit world. Plus, we’ve got an indoor swimming pool.”

Since Bergstrom worked for the Environmental Protection Agency for over a decade, it’s no surprise the conversation turns to today’s EPA.

“People forget that (President Ronald) Reagan gutted the EPA in the ’80s by cutting the agency budget 44 percent and firing nearly 30 percent of the staff,” he points out. “(Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott) Pruitt is a lot smarter, but climate science is a complicated dynamic system with many different processes, and the agency and the White House keep sending mixed messages.”

Robert knows many of the complications of studying climate change.

“Starting with my PhD thesis on the absorption of carbon particles,” he says, “my expertise is focused on climate science.”

As the author of numerous scientific papers in this field, he’s studied the effects of aerosol use in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, also studying the worldwide, long-term effects of Mount Pinatubo’s cataclysmic volcanic explosion in the Philippines.

“Nearly 20 million tons of Sulphur dioxide were injected into the stratosphere,” Robert says, explaining that that’s 6.2 to 31 miles above the Earth. “In comparison,” he says, “the SO2 gas plume from the recent eruption in Hawaii reached less than 1.5 miles into the sky.”

Bergstrom has never been a man to stay still very long. With an MA and PhD in Mechanical Engineering, Perdue University awarded him the Outstanding Mechanical Engineering Award from his alma mater in 2015. Perdue notes in the award, “Robert holds a law degree from Stanford University and is a member of the California Bar.”

When asked about this, Robert chuckles.

“When I was doing environmental consulting,” he says, “I realized that most attorneys didn’t have a clue about the science involved in litigation. So when I scored well on the LSAT and got admitted to Stanford Law, I went. Otherwise I would have wondered about missing that opportunity for the rest of my life.”