DURHAM, N.C.—Longtime Nicholas School faculty member Richard Barber, whose pioneering studies on ocean biogeochemistry contributed much to what we know about the ocean’s role in storing climate-warming greenhouse gases, has died.

Barber, who was Harvey W. Smith Professor Emeritus of Biological Oceanography at the Duke University Marine Lab, passed away April 4.

“Dick was a true giant in the field of biological oceanography and left a lasting impression on all of us who were fortunate to know him. He leaves an enormous legacy in his field and here at Duke,” said Marine Lab Director Andrew Read.

“Dick was that rare combination: a great researcher, a great teacher and a great person,” said Toddi Steelman, Stanback Dean of the Nicholas School. “His talent, curiosity and kindness knew no bounds.”

For much of his 56-year career, Barber worked to better understand the impact of climate variability on the living resources of highly productive marine ecosystems in the upwelling regions of the Pacific, Indian and Southern oceans. Those studies shed new light on the role ocean biogeochemical processes play in the global carbon cycle, particularly in sequestering anthropogenic carbon dioxide.

His many influential studies included “Biochemical Controls and Feedbacks on Ocean Primary Production,” which has been cited more than 3000 times since its publication in Science in 1998; “Biological Consequences of El Niño,” which has been cited more than 1200 times since its publication in Science in 1983; and “Response of Ocean Ecosystems to Climate Warming,” which has been cited more than 900 times since its publication in Global Biogeochemical Cycles in 2004.  

After retiring in 2006, he began conducting a new series of studies on mercury contamination in coastal and oceanic fish. That work led to a seminal 2015 study that showed mercury levels in bluefish caught off the North Carolina coast in 2011 were 43% lower than in bluefish caught in 1972—unequivocal evidence, he said, that federal regulations over the intervening four decades to limit mercury-laden emissions from coal-fired power plants were having major beneficial impacts

Barber joined the Duke faculty in 1970 after serving as a postdoctoral fellow and assistant scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. In 1987, he temporarily left Duke to serve as the founding director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California. In 1990, he returned to the Duke Marine Lab as Harvey W. Smith Professor of Biological Oceanography, a post he held until he became a professor emeritus in 2006.

During his time at Duke, he served as advisor to 15 PhD students, three Master of Science students and nine Master of Environmental Management students.

Barber earned his doctoral degree in biological sciences from Stanford University in 1967, and Bachelor of Science degrees in zoology and botany from Utah State University in 1962.

In recognition of his contributions to science, he was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1991 and a Fellow of the American Geophysical Union in 1995, among many other high honors.

In recognition of his contributions to the Duke Marine Lab, the Nicholas School named a 30-foot research vessel, the RV Richard Barber, in his honor.

In addition to his teaching and research, Barber served the science community as founding director of the Duke/University of North Carolina Oceanographic Consortium; a council member of The Oceanography Society; president of the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography; president of Ocean Sciences Section of the American Geophysical Union; and as an advisor to the North Carolina Coastal Federation.

Memorial services will be held at a future date at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Beaufort. Additional information about the services and any memorial gift designations will be shared with the Nicholas School community as it becomes available.