Richard G. Fairbanks

2001 Maurice Ewing Medal Winner

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

Richard G. Fairbanks was awarded the Maurice Ewing Medal at the 2001 Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony on 12 December, in San Francisco, California. The medal is given for significant original contributions to understanding physical, geophysical, and geological processes in the ocean; to scientific ocean engineering, technology, and instrumentation; and outstanding service to marine sciences.


“It is my pleasure and honor to present the citation for Richard Fairbanks, recipient of the 2001 Maurice Ewing Medal, presented jointly by the United States Navy and the American Geophysical Union.

“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. He clearly exemplifies the intent of the Maurice Ewing Medal.”

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


“I am deeply honored to receive the Maurice Ewing Medal, and I thank Peter Eisenberger for his kind words and friendship. Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory has been my professional home for my entire career, and I owe much to this institution that Maurice Ewing built more than fifty years ago. Maurice Ewing, a world-renowned geophysicist, founded Lamont the year before I was born, and he left for Texas as I started graduate work at Brown. I believe that I am the first Ewing Medal recipient who did not meet Maurice Ewing in person, nor overlap with him in the course of my career.

“When I arrived at Lamont in 1978, Maurice Ewing’s scientific template for Lamont was still indelibly imprinted on the campus and its research programs. It was the combination of the remnants of Ewing’s era, combined with the changes under way, that made Lamont an irresistible place to work.

“One vestige of Ewing’s era was the unusual Lamont campus layout. Dead center in the campus, where most campus planners site a central green, Ewing located the Machine Shop and Central Store. That suited me just fine, as I started my career with tremendous enthusiasm for building an isotope laboratory and an extensive seagoing program. In fact, it was on my daily visits to the Central Store, where I could purchase any size stainless steel bolt, nut, or widget imaginable, that I learned the early history of Lamont. You see, Buddy, who was the manager of our Central Store from the early days, had a daily ritual with me. He would disappear down an aisle of shelving trying to fill my parts list for the day, and shout over to me, ‘They can’t fire me. I know too much!’ I would yell back, ‘Oh yeah, like what?’ Buddy would shout back a new tidbit of Lamont’s early history, and I would inevitably reply, ‘You’re right, you know too much!’ And so, day by day, I slowly assembled, as Paul Harvey would say, ‘the rest of the story.’

“As I reflect on my career and the scientific accomplishments leading up to the Ewing Medal, I have a confession to make. One of my long-standing areas of research is the record of sea level, undoubtedly the specialty most colleagues would assign to me. As I joined the faculty of Columbia University in 1990, Rhodes Fairbridge was retiring from our department after a long and productive career in sea-level research. Rhodes Fairbridge was one of the most prolific science writers in the twentieth century. Over the past decade, I have often received mail addressed to Rhodes Fairbanks, or maybe Richard Fairbridge, or Richard Fairbanks, but the letters opened with ‘Dear Rhodes.’ I have even given keynote speeches where, to this day, I am not sure whether the host thought that I was Rhodes Fairbridge, Richard Fairbanks, or some combination. So, a little voice inside says, ‘Thank you, Rhodes Fairbridge, for extending my scientific career in sea-level research by 40 years.’ You can now appreciate why I was pleased when, upon closer examination, I confirmed that the envelope and letter from AGU announcing the Maurice Ewing Medalist was unambiguously addressed to Richard Fairbanks, and that to my added relief, Marcia had crossed out ‘Dear Professor Fairbanks’ and had written in ‘Dear Rick.’

“The fields of paleoceanography, climate research, and marine geochemistry were in their infancies when I began my career, and the process of selecting exciting scientific topics was as easy as picking apples from a tree. The speed at which these fields advanced was exhilarating, for we could be sure that our data and interpretations would be rapidly tested and scrutinized by new techniques, better instruments, and improved models. I enjoy this accountability in science.

“I am sad that my close friend and advocate, Sam Epstein, who died several months ago, is not here to help me celebrate. Sam had a profound influence on my career, and he, more than anyone, continually spurred me to expand my horizons. Without question, the satisfaction of learning new topics and techniques, and meeting new colleagues, reinvigorates my career. I wish I could thank all the important people in my career, but I fear the list would be too long and the omissions too many. However, I would be remiss not to formally acknowledge Robley Knight Matthews, my Ph.D. thesis advisor at Brown University, as well as my department and my classmates at Brown, for creating a wonderful research environment in which to start my career. I have benefited immeasurably from the support of Columbia’s Administration, especially Michael Crow and Jonathan Cole, generous funding from the National Science Foundation, and collaborations with my Lamont colleagues, graduate students, post docs, and laboratory specialists, none better than Richard Mortlock.

“As a tribute to my father, I would like to acknowledge that his passion for his chosen career gave me the courage to pursue my passion, no matter where it led. Of course, support and encouragement from my wife, Kathy, and my children, Adam, Todd, Margot, and Brooke, have always been the pillars underlying my scientific accomplishments.”

—RICHARD G. FAIRBANKS, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Columbia University, Palisades, New York