Local Obituaries

UM geologist Robert Ginsburg, who plumbed the deep to reveal its secrets, dies at 92

University of Miami professor of Marine geology Robert Ginsburg waded in the waters of Biscayne Bay in Matheson Hammock as founding father of the worldwide Year of the Reef ’97 project.
University of Miami professor of Marine geology Robert Ginsburg waded in the waters of Biscayne Bay in Matheson Hammock as founding father of the worldwide Year of the Reef ’97 project. Miami Herald File

Robert Nathan Ginsburg, a geologist and carbonate sedimentology professor at the University of Miami, ran one of the coolest marine laboratory offices this side of James Bond.

For more than 60 years, Ginsburg, “a hunter of ancient, long-buried coral reefs,” as The Miami News once called him, studied sea-floor deposits. For 21 of those years, he did so from the T. Wayland Vaughan Laboratory for Comparative Sedimentology that UM leased on Fisher Island.

He organized that lab out of the former U.S. Quarantine Station from a series of aging buildings on 15 acres off Miami Beach at the entrance to the Port of Miami. From this base, from 1970 to 1991, as head of the Sedimentology Laboratory, he led marine researchers from UM’s Rosenstiel School into the waters of the Caribbean to probe its secrets.

In 1986, he discovered a nearly 3-million-year-old ancient coral atoll across the Gulf Stream in the Bahamas that may once have been the greatest such ring-shaped coral island in the world. Another find was a mile-deep trench in the Grand Bahama Bank near Bimini, filled in so it left little clue to its existence on the ocean bottom.

“We never dreamed anything like that was down there,” Ginsburg told the Miami News in 1986. “Now we want to drill into it to see what’s there.”

Since arriving in Miami from the University of Chicago in 1950, where he earned his doctorate, learning “what’s there” had fueled Ginsburg’s passion. He started as a research assistant at UM’s Marine Laboratory, the precursor of the Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science on Virginia Key.

Ginsburg led the research and training program on carbonates for the Shell Development Co. in Coral Gables from 1954 to 1965. He was professor of geology and oceanography at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore from 1965 to his return to UM in 1970. Here, he plumbed the sea bottom to reveal its history, present and potential future.

In 1953, Ginsburg published his first paper in Miami: “Intertidal Erosion on the Florida Keys.”

Ginsburg, born the son of an oil man in Texas, retired at 85 from UM in 2011. On July 9, Ginsburg died of pneumonia after battling late-stage dementia. He was 92.

“Bob defined the profession of carbonate sedimentology and was one of the most influential thinkers in his field — working in both industry and academia,” said Peter Swart, a UM geochemist professor whom Ginsburg hired from England in 1983 and later became his boss. “We had many adventures together, and he was sort of a Jacques Cousteau character.’’

Ginsburg’s studies of sea-floor deposits, or sediment, attracted the interest of numerous multinational oil companies — including Amoco, Chevron, Shell and Texaco. The industry helped support his research with sponsorships, a combined $200,000 in 1987, for instance, to learn about his findings ahead of the rest of the scientific world. Buried in the rock formations of the ocean floor bubbled oil, a product Texaco and others wanted to extract. The sponsorships helped fund Rosenstiel’s students, faculty, staff and research projects in the Bahamas and Belize.

“All they get from us is ideas,” Ginsburg told the Miami News in 1988. “The application of these ideas to specific examples is their business.”

Robert Ginsburg, then a professor of geology at University of Miami’s Rosentiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science, held up a map of South Florida as he talked about the evolution of the waterways and limestone formations in Miami-Dade during the Waterway Renaissance Waterway Tour in Coral Gables on June 6, 2010. CHRIS CUTRO For the Miami Herald

When UM vacated the Fisher Island lab in 1991, Ginsburg moved to the school’s Rosenstiel campus on Virginia Key, where he would remain for the next 20 years.

Concurrent with the move, he had embarked on one of his more ambitious projects — the drilling of two deep boreholes near the margin of Great Bahama Bank. His research, alongside colleague Gregor Eberli, revealed that the shape of the Bahamas had not always been as it currently appears. Rather, Great Bahama Bank had been composed of a number of smaller platforms, which had over millions of years merged together.

At Rosenstiel, Ginsburg, who had organized the 1977 international Coral Reef Symposium in Miami, assessed declining coral reefs in the Caribbean.

“He soon discovered that there was an appalling lack of baseline data that could be used to document the perceived decrease so he set up a simple protocol which could be used by amateurs and professionals to survey reefs in a rapid quantitative manner,” Swart said. “With these data obtained over a number of years, the ugly truth about the decline in coral reefs could not be ignored. In this new direction, he touched an entire new generation of scientists.”

Bob has had a profound influence on how we search for oil using the modern in order to understand the past.

Peter Swart, University of Miami geochemist.

Ginsburg is survived by his partner Leonore Bernard. He was predeceased by his wife Helen Sloan.

Memorial services will be at 10:30 a.m. Sunday at Riverside Gordon Memorial Chapels at Mount Nebo/Kendall, 5900 SW 77th Ave. Donations can be made to the Department of Marine Geosciences at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science or to the Ocean Research and Educational Foundation, P.O. Box 431522, Big Pine Key, FL 33043.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen