Richard G. Fairbanks

Rick Fairbanks has made major scientific contributions to a diverse range of ocean science topics including (1) sea-level history, (2) deepwater circulation, (3) plankton ecology and chemistry, (4) tracer oceanography, especially coastal waters, (5) ENSO/monsoon reconstructions on long time scales, and (6) mass spectrometry design and automation.

Fairbanks is undoubtedly best known for his ‘scientific home run’ on Barbados. After spending several years on offshore drill design, prototyping, and field-testing, Fairbanks set out for Barbados to core the drowned Pleistocene reefs. Equipped with 200 tons of drill equipment he installed on a chartered Navy missile-test ship, Fairbanks and crew recovered the Rosetta Stones of Pleistocene studies. The science achievements first published by Fairbanks and his students were three-fold. First, they measured the most detailed and accurate sea-level record documenting the demise of the last ice age and identified key amplifiers of climate change. Second, they calibrated the radiocarbon dating method via the uranium nuclides and identified long-term change in the Earth’s magnetic field intensity. Third, they measured major changes in the sea surface temperature in the tropics over the past 30,000 years, breaking a long-standing paradigm on the constancy of tropical sea surface temperatures.

Published in a series of Science and Nature articles with his students and postdocs, the results had major scientific impacts over a range of scientific disciplines. For example, the Barbados sea-level record is the most complete sea-level record available, and as a result of its uranium-series dating accuracy, the pulsed nature of sea-level change has been documented. The calibration of the radiocarbon timescale led to the discovery that the carbon14 clock was offset by more than 5,000 years approximately 25,000 years ago, impacting many results and debates in Pleistocene research. These findings contribute to our understanding of the Earth’s magnetic field, cosmic ray production rates, rates of human evolution, and climate change. An equally startling finding showed that the tropics varied by 5°C, a finding quite relevant to global warming concerns today.

One of the early pioneers in the study of deepwater circulation, Fairbanks and his students used geochemical tracers to document modulations of North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW) in the Pleistocene. Using stable isotope and trace element proxies of deepwater temperature and nutrients, Fairbanks and his students studied the world’s oceans, with a unique emphasis on the Southern Ocean, a key region to monitor net changes in the NADW production. They were the first to document the important role of air–sea exchange in modifying the carbon isotope chemistry of surface and intermediate waters. Many of these former students are now recognized as world leaders in the field of deepwater circulation research.

Over much of his career, Fairbanks has worked with biologists Peter Wiebe, Alan Be, and Sharon Smith to study the vertical distribution and isotope and trace element chemistry of marine plankton from the equator to the polar regions. Fairbanks and his colleagues unraveled the processes controlling the vertical distribution and chemistry of planktonic foraminifera, arguably the most important microfossil group in deepsea studies. In particular, the role of the chlorophyll maximum zone in dictating the vertical distribution, abundance, and skeletal chemistry is a fundamental finding that ties foraminifera abundance and chemistry to predictable hydrographic gradients. These findings, in cooperation with graduate student Christina Ravelo and George Philander at Princeton, were elegantly incorporated into an ecological and ocean model that was used to predict the hydrography of ancient oceans.

Some know Fairbanks best through his research on the origin of coastal waters and his use of the oxygen and hydrogen isotope tracers of the water molecule. Combining ‘quiet’ electronics and computer automation of his design, Fairbanks was the first to achieve high-precision automated isotopic analysis of the water molecule. Initially credited with documenting the Labrador sources of New England coastal waters, Fairbanks and colleagues are actively involved in applying the isotope tracer technique to coastal waters ranging from the Arctic to the Antarctic.

In 1978, Fairbanks and Richard Dodge demonstrated for the first time that long-lived coral skeletons could be sampled at biweekly resolution for temperature, salinity, and incident radiation reconstructions. Their results were confirmed by many investigators around the world and led to one of the most rapidly growing fields of paleoceanography: ocean/climate reconstructions via geochemical proxies in corals. In particular, studies of ENSO and the Asian monsoon climate systems have made great gains using these methods pioneered by Fairbanks and Dodge more than 20 years ago.

Fairbanks’s strength in engineering has greatly contributed to his scientific accomplishments in the lab and at sea. Fairbanks’s mass spectrometry automation designs are found in hundreds of laboratories around the world, substantially improving the data quality and the productivity of many mass spectrometry laboratories.

Fairbanks has served our community through editorial boards at Science, Paleoceanography, and Geological Society of America Bulletin and countless administrative boards and commissions nationally and at Lamont-Doherty and Columbia University. He is a Fellow of the Geological Society of America and a recipient of the Rosenstiel Medal. Through all this, he has somehow remained extremely involved in civic activities in his neighborhood and town and on the state and federal level.

—PETER EISENBERGER, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Columbia University, Palisades, New York

Updated June 29, 2023