Richard Fairbanks '72, Commencement Remarks

May 17, 2009


Good morning and congratulations Class of 2009, we are honored to join you in today’s ceremony.  I am pleased to be the spokesman for my colleagues and remind you that it is customary to attribute any witty and memorable passages to the spokesman while the pedantic ramblings are broadly shared.  We all wish to thank President Sullivan and his wife Ann for their remarkable stewardship of St Lawrence over the past 14 years and their profound contributions to the future of St Lawrence.  We wish you well.
We thank President Sullivan, the Trustees, and St Lawrence faculty for recognizing our accomplishments in Climate and Oceanographic Sciences. 

I can see that many parents and especially my classmates Jack and Barb Geortner, class of 72’, are bracing for a fire and brimstone sermon on the perils of global warming, a sermon filled with admonishments for their profligate ways.  Not here, not today, relax!  There is so much more to climate research than the “chicken little” stories that you read in the headlines, and so in the next few minutes we’ll talk about the “rest of the story”. 

Modern Climate Theory had an explosive start.  Professor Harold Urey was a Nobel Prize winner and director of war research for the top secret Manhattan Project, a brain trust responsible for the development of the atomic bomb.  At the end of the war, Urey assembled a new brain trust, some scientists from the Manhattan Project and some new recruits, this time devoted to planetary sciences. 

Using particle accelerators left over from the Manhattan Project, Urey measured and interpreted natures’ nuclear thermometers and nuclear clocks that can be read inside the crystals of microscopic marine fossils.  In less than a decade, Urey’s team assembled enough temperature measurements on finely layered ocean sediments to discover that Earth’s temperature is not cooling steadily but, in fact, is constantly and dramatically changing in regular cycles.   Anyone from the North Country knows all too well about the succession of the seasons tied to the Earth’s annual orbit around the Sun.  Well it turns out that the shape of the Earth’s orbit and the tilt of its axis oscillate over geologic time causing mega-seasons, not measured in months but in thousands of years.  These mega-seasons occur with the same regularity as our annual progression of the seasons.

Bingo -- a scientific revolution was underway, a Unifying Theory for Climate Sciences.  It is now known that these long-period seasons shape every aspect of the surface of our planet and cause continuous change, from the atmosphere we breathe (including its CO2 content) to the size and location of ice sheets, the surface landscapes surrounding us today, the level of our seas, the migration paths available for our ancestors, to the modern ocean circulation patterns and the modern vegetation patterns from pole to pole.  The changes are going on right now and are large enough to be measured and monitored in some areas.  Understanding and learning from these natural climate cycles holds the key to making climate predictions, including the impact of man.  Essentially this is what we do.

In 1972, I graduated from SLU and received a fellowship to go to Brown University for my PhD, to research the implications of this new Climate Change Paradigm for predicting future climate.  Three months after I arrived, my research advisor, along with a prominent scientist from Columbia University, wrote a letter to President Nixon summarizing recommendations from an international Climate Conference held at Brown University.  The letter explained that we were on a precipice, marked by the confluence of several of the natural climate cycles, and that global cooling may be imminent.  Many colleagues at both universities vetted the letter, which stated:

“ . . . a global deterioration of climate, by order of magnitude larger than any hitherto experienced by civilized mankind, is a very real possibility and indeed may be due very soon. The cooling has natural cause and falls within the rank of processes which produced the last ice age.”
It has been chronicled that the White House sent the now famous “Matthews-Kukla letter” to key government agencies and through a chain of events and commissions resulted in the White House establishing in 1974 our U.S. National Climate Research Program.  The problem of the outer planets controlling Earth’s climate, the sophisticated instrumentation used to study the subject, and the relevance to mankind were a match for me.  And so I began my career by studying global cooling, yes, I said global cooling!  Yeah, I know what you are thinking – this must be embarrassing, sort of like scoring a goal for the other team.  Think that if you will, but this is actually where modern climate predictions started not so very long ago.

In 1973, my SLU classmate Dale Chayes graduated from SLU and went directly to Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory to develop underwater instruments.  Dale soon realized that the sonar hardware was limited by the computing power to process the data and programs to analyze and visually display the results.  Over the course of his career, Dale has pioneered this nexus between hardware and software, and his ever-innovative equipment is the industry standard on modern research vessels. Directly and indirectly, Dale’s instrumentation has contributed to more oceanographic discoveries than probably any of his contemporaries.  Dale even installed his sonar on a Navy nuclear submarine for one of the first Navy/civilian oceanographic projects, a trek under the Arctic ice to the North Pole; incredible!

In 1981 and 1982, Professors Katz and deMenocal graduated from SLU and moved on to graduate schools.  This was the year that the Earth was rocked by climate extremes never before recorded.  It was more than a year later when climate scientists and oceanographers reconstructed what actually happened, leading to new climate theories. And so began our scientific fascination and intense studies of El Nino.  The entire Earth warmed during the peak of the 1983 El Nino, and a fledging scientific interest in another topic --- global warming -- was fueled.

Professor deMenocal graduated from Columbia University in 1991 and soon developed a subfield of the new Climate Paradigm, he became a world expert on how ancient civilizations adapted or collapsed due to the natural climate cycles.  Whether collaborating with Richard Leakey on African Homo sapiens evolution and the influence of natural climate cycles or leading a research expedition offshore Africa aboard Columbia’s research ship, Peter has been hard at work uncovering the climate archives buried beneath the sea or in remote terrains.  He learned to read the chemical and fossil microscopic records from delicately layered sediment cores like the pages in a history book – leading to expeditions, adventures and studies that sound a bit like Indiana Jones.  The Holy Grail of global warming climate forecasts is the estimate of natural global warming that occurred in past climate cycles when atmospheric CO2 increased naturally.  At present, Peter and other members of the group are in hot pursuit of this answer, the so called “CO2 amplifier factor”.

Professor Mimi Katz arrived at Columbia in 1983 and established herself as a world expert in the long-term history of the oceans and Earth’s climate.  Mimi combined the Theory of Plate Tectonics and the Theory of Climate Change to research how changes in the position of Earth’s plates ultimately led to today’s climate and ocean circulation.  She uses the 470’ long international research drill ship, a floating research campus, to core many miles below the sea floor to build an Encyclopedia Britannica of Earth’s climate history spanning tens of millions of years.  Mimi and her colleagues found that there are times when the Earth shows little response to the natural climate cycles and other times when the Earth is hypersensitive to the same external forcing.  Her work contributed to a new understanding of how the endless shifting of Earth’s plates opened and closed key ocean passages that dramatically altered ocean circulation and global climate sensitivity.  Studies of different time intervals and ocean configurations can be viewed as stress tests of the climate system, in other words, how much shock the climate system can take before parts of it react.

Our group of SLU grads witnessed and contributed to the explosive growth of climate sciences and many of the key discoveries.  Our SLU education prepared us to contribute to a better understanding of the causes and consequences of climate change through our research, our writing, and our teaching.  This understanding provides the critical context that is needed to evaluate and forecast our ever changing climate.

Undoubtedly, future scientific discoveries will be made by members of the Class of 2009.  What you do with new scientific knowledge and predictions made over the next few decades will involve the entire Class of 2009, challenging all of your wisdom and training.  We wish you good luck and good fortune as you start your careers and hope that each of you is fortunate to feel the excitement and passion for your career as we do for ours.