Linda Zall played a starring role in American science that led to decades of major advances. But she never described her breakthroughs on television, or had books written about her, or received high scientific honors. One database of scientific publications lists her contributions as consisting of just three papers, with a conspicuous gap running from 1980 to 2020.
The reason is that Dr. Zall’s decades of service to science were done in the secretive warrens of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Now, at 70, she’s telling her story — at least the parts she’s allowed to talk about — and admirers are praising her highly classified struggle to put the nation’s spy satellites onto a radical new job: environmental sleuthing.
Dr. Zall’s program, established in 1992, was a kind of wayback machine that looked to as long ago as 1960. In so doing, it provided a new baseline for assessing the pace and scope of planetary change. Ultimately, it led to hundreds of papers, studies and reports — some classified top secret, some public, some by the National Academy of Sciences, the premier scientific advisory group to the federal government. The accumulated riches included up to six decades of prime data on planetary shifts in snowfall and blizzards, sea ice and glaciers.
“None of this would have happened without her,” said Jeffrey K. Harris, who worked with Dr. Zall as director of the National Reconnaissance Office, which runs the nation’s fleet of orbital spies. “You have to decide if you’re going to break down the wall or climb over it, and she did a little bit of both.”