The Lavoisier Group 2008 Forum The Solar System and Earth's Climate

Memories of Rhodes Fairbridge

Cliff Ollier

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 big conference.

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 figure.

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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