Going into the past for the future

Academics recognised as future research leaders

The University of Sydney will receive more than $1.7m from the Australian Research Council for new research into melting Antarctic ice sheets and how deep-sea carbon reservoirs affect climate change.

Dr Adriana Dutkiewicz pointing to the ‘golden spike’ in the Flinders Ranges marking the base of the Ediacaran system, a geological period that started 635 million years ago.

Federal Minister for Education Dan Tehan has this week announced the Australian Research Council Future Fellowships, which fund future leaders of Australian research to tackle challenges of national importance.

Geologist Dr Adriana Dutkiewicz from the School of Geosciences in the Faculty of Science, was awarded more than $861,000 to delve into the evolution of deep-sea carbon reservoirs over the past 150 million years. By examining Earth’s geological past, we will be better able to predict the rate and implications of climate change.

“Carbon is constantly cycled between the biosphere, atmosphere, oceans and the solid Earth. This cycle regulates the Earth’s surface temperature and drives its climate, affecting all life and ecosystems on our planet,” Dr Dutkiewicz said.

“The accumulation of deep-sea carbonate sediments on the ocean floor is the main mechanism by which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and the ocean. This carbon reservoir is the least well-understood component of the long-term carbon cycle,” she said.

“This project will involve working with vast amounts of existing ocean drilling data, collected over many decades, and analysing these global data sets to discover new information. Working with existing data also means that I won’t get sea-sick. I am looking forward to forging international collaborations and working on a global, planetary-scale problem that is important for the future of this planet.”

Oceanographer Dr Paul Spence will conduct a series of ocean and ice experiments in a $871,0000 project to better understand Antarctica’s melting ice sheets, which are responsible for 28 percent of global sea level rise in recent decades, and could contribute a staggering 15 metres by 2500.

Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research) Professor Laurent Rivory congratulated Dr Dutkiewicz and Dr Spence on the successful funding of these important projects.

‘Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our time and will soon affect every aspect of our lives, from where we can live and how our food is grown, to the jobs we will hold in the future.’

How marine snow cools the planet

Read about Dr Dutkiewicz’s research

World heritage and ‘that wall’.

Why, when science gets it right, do our leaders for political reasons get it wrong?

In democracies we choose our leaders. Our attitudes are revealed by our choices.

World heritage sites are established because there is something amazing, remarkable, irreplaceable that stirs our capacity to wonder. We can study and learn from them. A case in point. In Australia, is the Great Barrier Reef. A coal ship corridor for 50 kilometres is being established from Abbot Point on the Queensland coast. Our reef can be seen from space! Global warming is having its impact but political decisions like this intensify the problem. David Attenborough has made clear how destructive our political actions have been. We need to be custodians of these extraordinary sites. Slowly or swiftly, we take from the world a living wonder.

In America, the following is an example of swift destructive decision making.

This example comes from Mark Sumner of the Daily Kos staff, Sunday, October 6th 2019 – 3:27 AM Australian Central Daylight Time.

Trump is destroying an irreplaceable world treasure in an effort to speed up building his ‘wall’

Portions of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument were already crossed by a border fence in 2017 – but now they are destroyed. RSS

“Since 1976, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument has also been the Organ Pipe Cactus Biosphere Reserve, a world heritage site sanctioned by UNESCO as the most pristine examples of intact Sonoran Desert ecosystem. The otherworldly beauty of the monument brings visitors who come to gawk at the towering forms and hike the gravel-strewn trails. It also attracts scientists from around the globe who study the inhabitants of the desert and their adaptation to this incredible environment.

Mark Sumner calls this decision “one of the greatest acts of ecological vandalism in a century—carried out in an effort to hurry construction of the President’s border fence.”

The author makes clear why he thinks the President of the United States has chosen to move into sites of national, and international significance. It appears to be, this way, he can avoid “potential lawsuits from private landowners that could tie up progress for months.” The President, it also appears, is expecting “the EPA and Interior Department to ignore every law and regulation concerning construction, environmental impact studies, and protection of archaeological artifacts.” It is important to realise that some of the areas targeted already had an existing barrier. The Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument had such a barrier set up between 2012 and 2017. Mark Sumner reminds his readers.

“Even after miles of border fence were erected in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument between 2012 and 2017, the striking beauty of this Sonoran Desert jewel was preserved. There is no question that original fence was destructive. Following the border as closely as possible meant that not only were saguaro and other cactus that had grown over a space of centuries removed to provide highly questionable ‘security,’ but the ranges of rare and endangered desert animals were permanently altered. Disturbing as it was at the time, that initial fence was placed with some care, often without disturbing ancient, towering examples of cactus within just a few feet of the fence. Images from 2017 show a relatively low fence that, while it certainly doesn’t vanish into the landscape, is also not a jarring disruption of the otherwise gorgeous scenery.”

“Now those ranges, and cactus older than the nation, are simply being bulldozed aside as [he] carves a scar across the desert. That original fence was in no sense attractive, and the damage it caused to the site was real. But compared to what [he] is doing in an effort to claim miles for his ‘wall,’ it’s a paper cut.”

The image shows a section of the border fence as it existed in 2017.

Now, in 2019, this.
Saguaro cactus being bulldozed in advance of building his border ‘wall’.

“In video shot by Kevin Dahl, senior program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, bulldozers can be seen cutting through the Saguaro and heaping them like rubbish.

These cactus can obtain a weight of tons, and an age of centuries. Even the more modest-sized examples being bulldozed in these images likely have an age of over 100 years, as growth comes slowly in the water-starved desert. 

In September, the defense department claimed that saguaro in the path of the barrier construction would be ‘relocated’ to other sections of the monument. But Dahl’s video reveals that this is a flat-out lie. The rare and iconic cactus are instead shown being pushed along by bulldozer and piled into heaps with other ripped-up plants. 

These areas of desert will not be repaired in the lifetime of anyone now looking at their events. Or their children’s lifetime. Or their children’s. Even if [his] pointless, useless, ugly barrier were ripped down tomorrow, it wouldn’t begin to repair the damage that’s underway — damage that is expected to stretch 78 miles across the ecological fragile park.”

“Sorry, world.”  This is the way Mark Sumner finishes his article.

In Australia, Judith Wright, one of our finest poets, warned us about the dangers to the Reef in the 1970s. Rachel Carson tried to alert America to the terrible impact of thoughtless or deliberate political decisions. Aided by global warming, in Australia, despite the efforts of those who work tirelessly to conserve this world heritage site we are allowing this to go on. Its condition now is considered ‘very poor’. The decision to establish that coal ship corridor was made in 2017.

I thought this example of how swiftly the damage can be done worth sharing. Democracies do not have the excuse of those living under totalitarian regimes. We can find out. But how often is it – when such extraordinary natural and often equally important cultural world heritage sites are not close to us – that we, the citizens of our democratic nations, wake up too late? What is getting in the way? We need to be thinking about that.