So explained Rhodes Fairbridge of Columbia University, a giant in science over much of the last century whose accomplishments are perhaps unsurpassed for their breadth, depth, and volume. This one man authored or co-authored 100 scientific books and more than 1,000 scientific papers, he edited the Benchmarks in Geology series (more than 90 volumes in print) and was general editor of the Encyclopaedias of the Earth Sciences. He edited eight major encyclopedias of specialized scientific papers in the atmospheric sciences and astrogeology; geomorphology; geochemistry and the earth sciences; geology, sedimentology, paleontology, oceanography and, not least, climatology.
Changes in sunspots and other solar activity, scientists have realized for more than two centuries, correlate closely with the climate of Earth, explaining the ice ages and periods of great warming. But what, Dr. Fairbridge wondered, causes these changes in our sun?
The answer, he discovered with the help of NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, lies largely in the solar system's centre of gravity. At times, the sun is at the solar system's centre of gravity. Most often, this is not the case-- the orbit of the planets will align planets to one side or another of the sun. Jupiter, the planet with by far the largest mass, most influences the solar system's centre of gravity. When Uranus, Neptune and especially Saturn -- the next largest planet -- join Jupiter on one side of the solar system, the solar system's centre of gravity shifts well beyond the sun.
The sun's own orbit, he found, has eight characteristic patterns, all determined by Jupiter's position relative to Saturn, with the other planets playing much lesser roles. Some of these eight have orderly orbits, smooth and near-circular. During such orbits, solar activity is high and Earth heats up. Some of the eight orbits are chaotic, taking a loop-the-loop path. These orbits correspond to quiet times for the sun, and cool periods on Earth. Every 179 years or so, the sun embarks on a new cycle of orbits. One of the cooler periods in recent centuries was the Little Ice Age of the 17th century, when the Thames River in London froze over each winter. The next cool period, if the pattern holds, began in 1996, with the effects to be felt starting in 2010. Some predict three decades of severe cold.
Temperatures on Earth are but one consequence of these periodic and predictable celestial movements. Others, Dr. Fairbridge has shown, are seen everywhere on Earth: in the various and differing periodicities in rocks, glaciers, sand dunes and the circulation of the ocean; geomagnetic records; the records of the isotopes of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen in tree rings, ice cores, air and water. They are the periodicities of climate change.
Dr. Fairbridge's best-known periodicity, which he developed in the 1950s, hypothesized that sea levels had been rising for the last 16,000 years, during which there were periodic oscillations of rise and fall. The Fairbridge curve describing this period -- so named in derision because it offended the conventional wisdom - is now widely accepted. It demonstrates that, even within the past 1,000 years, sea levels have several times changed by up to two metres, and suddenly -- each of these large changes occurred in fewer than 40 years.
Dr. Fairbridge's broader climate change claims -- that celestial changes control Earth's temperatures -- remain controversial, but less so than they were decades ago, when his was a relatively lone voice. Solar scientists with increasing regularity are publishing data establishing celestial origins to climate change on Earth. Dr. Fairbridge saw his Fairbridgecurve theories vindicated, but he won't his celestial claims. This most remarkable individual died a year ago this week, at age 92.
- Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe and the Urban Renaissance Institute. www.urban-renaissance.org
CV OF A DENIER
Rhodes Fairbridge, an early expert on climate change, was a professor of geology at Columbia. He received an undergraduate degree from Queen's University in Ontario and a master's degree from the University of Oxford. He was awarded a doctorate of science by the University of Western Australia in 1944 at the age of 30, bypassing the usual PhD prerequisite. During the Second World War, Dr. Fairbridge also served with the Royal Australian Air Force in U.S. General Douglas MacArthur's headquarters as deputy director of intelligence.