Antarctica and the unprecedented bushfire emergency

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(Antarctic ice melt (Image by Christopher Michel / Flickr) and Snowy Mountains bushfire, January 2020 (Screenshot via YouTube)

The link between greenhouse gases and climate change was a well-established scientific fact decades ago, acted upon by Prime Minister Bob Hawke, writes Nick Goldie.

IT'S JUST THE START of the bushfire season. Blackened leaves are falling in the garden, and there are three massive cumulus plumes just to the east as the Good Good fire continues to burn out of control.

The bodies of the three American aerial firefighters have been recovered from the crash site near Peak View.

In our local weekly paper, someone who signs himself "Concerned Resident" asserts that 'climate has always changed' and it’s all in the lap of Mother Nature. Perhaps this is a comforting view, though I don’t find it so. I prefer to put my trust in the scientists who have – in their hundreds, even thousands – been compiling evidence, writing learned papers, and (mostly) keeping their heads down.

Australia has played an important role in global climate science, for the most practical of reasons. We are (or used to be) a nation of primary producers and climate is of great importance to sheep farmers, cattle producers, wheat growers, vineyards and all farmers. Less obvious but of huge significance is our Antarctic science — one of the prime targets for defunding by the Turnbull Government.

This important science has received very little attention, though it has been carried out for decades. 20 years ago and more, I was allowed to handle an Antarctic ice-core, by researcher David Etheridge, at CSIRO’s Aspendale laboratory in Victoria. Last year, with cores being drilled from 240 metres under the frozen surface, Australian and American scientists wound up the research project, which had only been maintained after considerable protest by the scientific community. In 2016 (then) science Minister Greg Hunt and obliging government-appointed CSIRO boss Larry Marshall announced that, as climate science was already complete, the research would be ended. There were loud and very surprised cries of protest, and the essential program was allowed to continue. (It is from air trapped in bubbles in ice that ancient atmospheric content is determined).

Climate science in Australia took off in the 1970s, often literally. CSIRO’s Graham Pearman was determined to find out what was happening "up there", so he invoked the help of pilots — at first light aircraft, later QANTAS passenger flights. Consignments of vacuum tubes from Tullamarine Airport to Aspendale became routine, while in 1976 the Cape Grim research station was established in Tasmania.

In 1987, a major conference called simply, GREENHOUSE, was held at Monash University. The 260 submissions received were edited into a book by Pearman, covering every aspect of the known science and its consequences.

The next year, CSIRO’s Division of Atmospheric Research could report proudly that it had acquired the Global Atmospheric Sampling Laboratory (GASLAB) as well as sophisticated computing equipment. And in 1990, Prime Minister Bob Hawke opened a new and impressive Climate Research Laboratory at Aspendale.

So there’s nothing new. As former Greens Leader Bob Brown pointed out in a speech to the Senate in 2008, the Democrats were calling for an enquiry into greenhouse gas emissions “in – wait for it! – in 1989".

I was privileged to know the late Mike Raupach, elected a Fellow of the Academy of Australian Science in 2009 after a long career with CSIRO. He was especially interested in the effects of human activities on the great cyclical movements of temperature, water and carbon.

He told me:

“The big challenge today is to meet the enormous demand for scientific information at every level, from the backyard barbecue to the political debate, while at the same time being entirely rigorous and maintaining an absolute respect for the scientific process.”

Meanwhile, one hears the word “unprecedented” more often. It’s hard not to become impatient – even enraged – when presumably well-meaning people sound off on the radio, or in the street, demanding increased hazard reduction burns, or freeing the national parks from green tape, or locking up the "greenies".

We’re in it for the long haul, there are no easy solutions, and no guarantee that we will come out safely at the other end.

Nick Goldie is a science journalist and volunteer firefighter who lives in rural NSW. He is currently writing a book on extreme fire events with fellow volunteer firefighter, mathematician and Professor Jason Sharples and  A.C.T. Emergency Services researcher Rick McRae.


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