The Lavoisier Group 2008 Forum The Solar System and Earth's Climate
Memories of Rhodes Fairbridge
Rhodes Fairbridge made many contributions to climate research
besides his work on the sun. I'll mention just a few here, and
a few details that may help reveal him as the man he was.
I first met him in 1965 at the International Quaternary Association
in Boulder, Colorado. We were on the same pre-conference excursion.
He was not the leader, but certainly one with the most to say.
I was an emerging young scientist, and he was a fairly new professor
at Columbia University, and he had decided that I was to be one
of his protégés---a bit patronising of him, but
very fortunate for me. On the excursion I found I was sharing
a room with him, which gave us lots of time to discuss the day's
events, even after the field work and evening activities finished.
After a couple of days this advantage disappeared because Rhodes
lost his voice. Some said this was typical - always attention-seeking
at any cost. Perhaps I was seeing a new side to his character
- but then I caught the wog and lost my voice too.
At the conference there was a vast amount of discussion of
the 'Fairbridge curve', a diagram showing the variation of sea
level over the past 10,000 years that he had published in 1961,
based largely on work done on Rottnest Island when he worked
at the University of Western Australia. Just about every coastal
and oceanographic worker wanted to distance themselves from the
Fairbdige idea, but Rhodes kept his cool, argued politely, and
always referred to his opponent as "My good friend Ken..."
"My good friend Bruce".... and so on. It is of interest
that more recently a group of Australians (including my ex-student
Bob Haworth) have revived the Fairbridge curve. They found that
some creatures, especially tube worms, have a very narrow range
within a few centimetres of high tide level, and being made of
carbonate they can be dated. The study indicates high sea level
stands at abut 5200 and 3800 BP. Like Fairbridge, they started
work on Rottnest Island, but they have now found similar levels
in New South Wales, Queensland and even Brazil, so the Fairbridge
Curve may be coming back into fashion.
When it was my turn to lecture at Boulder, Rhodes attended,
and afterwards gave me a terrific telling off! Didn't I notice
my audience contained a lot of Japanese, not to mention French,
German and other non-English speakers! Didn't I know that the
aim is to communicate, yet I had spoken too fast, in very colloquial
English! Ever since, whenever I have a mixed audience I lecture
in slow, simple English.
I next met Rhodes in Papua New Guinea, where I had set up
the Geology Department in the newly founded University. He was
continuing his sea-level research, and wanted to study the Trobriand
Islands, where several terraces indicated changes of sea-level
or tectonic uplift. At first I had the simple idea that terraces
result from jerks of tectonic uplift. Rhodes explained that slow
uplift, combined with ups and downs of sealevel, would produce
stepped topography. I noticed Rhodes' style of organizing an
expedition, but was never able to emulate the luxurious style
that he always managed.
Another meeting was in Sweden, where they held a conference
on deep weathering in non-tropical areas. Rhodes and I were the
two invited guest speakers. Apart from the conference and field
trips, Rhodes and I discussed an aspect of weathering that has
become important in later studies of weathering on the geological
time scale. The ruling theory at present is that mountain building
exposes rocks to greater weathering: this uses up carbon dioxide
in the carbonation process: the locking up of carbon dioxide
causes a negative greenhouse effect and leads to global cooling.
In fact, uplift of mountains leads to more physical weathering,
not chemical weathering. Furthermore the main process
of chemical weathering is hydrolysis of silicate minerals, not
carbonation. Deep chemical weathering produces clay, not carbonates.
Deep weathering does not use up carbon dioxide. In any event,
my lecture was good enough for Rhodes to invite me to his next
This conference, organized by Fairbridge and Paepe and financed
by NATO (I never found out why), was held a splendid hotel in
the Canary Islands, with fine field trips, and the topic was
"Greenhouse Effect, Sea Level and Drought".
The conference arose from a time when Rhodes and a colleague
called Newman were flying across the US in a plane and noticed
how many swimming pools there were, quite apart from the many
dams. They did a rough calculation, published in Nature,
showing that more water had been stored on land over the past
50 years than in all previous history. It seemed that man was
already controlling sea level, and without water storage on land
sea level might be 11 mm higher. The idea arose that if the
world really was getting warmer and sea level was rising, it
could be offset by storing more water on land. A further benefit
would come from using the water for irrigation to grow crops
to support the burgeoning population. The meeting was a success
and produced a useful volume of contributions, but the original
basis was, alas, untrue. Pirazzoli pointed out (when few people
seemed to be listening) that in the original calculation they
forgot to divide by the number of years!
Rhodes made an almost uncountable number of contributions
to scientific literature, because on top of a very large conventional
output he edited many encyclopedias, in which he wrote many of
the entries himself, and had his finger on the pulse of the whole
thing. I have contributed to three of the encyclopedias, and
in every case my article involved several letters from Rhodes
in person, sometimes suggesting additions or providing another
The rest I know mainly by hearsay. In World War Two he was
in Intelligence, and I think had something to do with the D-Day
landings, but whenever I tried to talk about the war he switched
to stories of his sister, who was a spy. Early in his career
he worked at the University of Western Australia, and when he
died I tried to get reactions to his time there. It seems that
his colleagues were not too impressed - perhaps his approach
was too novel - but his students adored him.
Fairbridge, R.W. 1961.Eustatic changes in sea level Physics
and Chemistry of the Earth, 4, 99-185.
Paepe. R., Fairbridge, R.W and Jelgersma. S. (Eds). Greenhouse
Effect, Sea Level and Drought, Kluwer, Dordrecht, 447-455.
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