The science laboratory

THE CAPTAIN STEERING Australia's Antarctic science program into its second century can't risk getting caught in the wake of history as he casts off from Hobart's Macquarie Wharf and heads south down the Derwent River.

In the summer of 2013 there is no room on the bridge of the Aurora Australis for Douglas Mawson, or for the storied master mariner who piloted his original Aurora, Captain John 'Gloomy' Davis. Nor for physicist-explorers of the ilk of Phillip Law and Louis Bernacchi. Or geologist Tannatt Edgeworth David, feted, rugged rock star of his era, and his precocious student Carsten Borchgrevink, who led the first expedition to winter on the ice.

Their ghosts and others who sailed this passage to history – Roald Amundsen, Ernest Shackleton, James Clark Ross – invisibly accompany the ice-bound scientists, sailors and specialist tradesfolk as they wave their goodbyes from the deck of the great red ship. Even old lags confess they are always humbled in this moment by the privilege and provenance of their voyage. But Captain Scott 'Scotty' Laughlin pays deference only to imminent concerns of trajectory, mass and velocity as he manoeuvres the 95-metre, 8500-tonne icebreaker away from her berth. Every faculty scans for any mischief being conjured by the breeze, the tide, the current; eyes rake the water for the flotsam and jetsam of a busy urban port – curious kayakers and unwary sailors. Distracting spectres, even heroically distinguished ones, will be given short shrift.

Laughlin will relax only when he's well clear of Hobart's shores, and then not for long. 'You get past Bruny Island and you're in the Southern Ocean. By the time everyone wakes up next morning, there will be no land to be seen.' Ahead lies eight to ten days of sailing down the globe and up through the latitudes which blow fierce and unforgiving through seafaring lore – the Roaring Forties, the Furious Fifties, the Screaming Sixties – before the ship pushes through the sea ice into harbour at one of Australia's scientific outposts at the end of the earth.

Laughlin hasn't kept score of how many times he's navigated this fabled passage but he's been at the helm of the Aurora Australis for up to four voyages each summer for a decade. Over eighteen seasons as captain and, before that, crewman, he's notched up about fifty voyages, sometimes ferrying expeditioners, supplies and equipment to Mawson, Casey and Davis stations; sometimes sailing circuits for oceanographers and biologists trawling for samples and readings from the depths. He has two more trips scheduled for this summer. The son of a Hobart boat-builder who grew up on schoolyard tales of icy derring-do, his mates included the son of the Australian Antarctic Division's then chief scientist, Professor Pat Quilty. 'Antarctica was a very tangible place,' Laughlin says. 'I'd watch the ships come in, and always knew I'd go down there.'


TODAY, LAUGHLIN IS employed by shipping giant P&O, but essentially works on contract for the Australian Antarctic Division. He is one of nearly three and a half thousand Tasmanians who owe their jobs to research science, worth $500 million annually in investment to the state and with huge potential to grow. The proceeds ripple widely, with mean earnings in the sector at $93,300 a year about a third higher than those across the state. The Tasmanian Polar Network – a collaboration of public institutions and providers of the bespoke goods, services and logistics required down south – calculates the value of their work for both the Australian and Hobart-based French scientific programs at about $70 million a year.

Exploration of the Antarctic continent and surrounding Southern Ocean dominates Tasmania's scientific enterprise. The Aurora Australis is the flagship; her first voyage of each summer is an entrenched seasonal rite. Her passages to and fro calibrate the pace of the massive logistical machine that cranks up every year, to dispatch and retrieve scientists and support crew and to provide a platform for marine research. More recently the arrival of the science peak season has also been heralded by the appearance on the tarmac at Hobart Airport of the Antarctic Airbus A319, which can deliver scientists to the ice in five hours via a $46-million airlink – weather permitting, though it frequently doesn't as a string of too-warm summers have melted the blue-ice landing strip, causing havoc with the flying schedule.

Right now the Antarctic fieldwork season is again in full swing, with more than 550 expeditioners deployed on ice and sea. A big focus of this season's program was a seven-week voyage on the Aurora Australis early in the season involving fifty scientists from eight nations. The culmination of years of planning, the SIPEX-2 voyage (Sea Ice Physics and Ecosystems Experiment) set out to probe the enmeshed relationships of sea ice, marine biogeochemistry and the wider Southern Ocean ecosystems. In frozen waters east of Casey Station, research teams worked from helicopters and temporary research stations pitched on ice floes.

In February 2013 another shipload will sail from Nelson, New Zealand, surveying Antarctic blue whales to collect data that will allow an estimation of their numbers. The species, the largest living creature on earth, was almost wiped out by whaling until an international ban largely halted the hunt in 1964. Researchers also hope that observing the whales at close quarters will allow insights into character and the use of breeding and feeding grounds.

Another major focus this season is Operation ICECAP (Investigating the Cryospheric Evolution of the Central Antarctic Plate), an ongoing collaboration of Australian, US, British and French glaciologists who crisscross the ice sheet in a modified vintage DC3 using radar to penetrate thousands of metres of ice and to plot the landscape of the smothered bedrock. This information is critical to figuring out how the largest body of fresh water on earth might behave in a warming world – the issue many experts consider the greatest climate conundrum of the moment.

There's also the annual housekeeping – updating surveys of penguins and Antarctic moss, charting weather to build the kind of continuous record required for meaningful interpretation of changing patterns; keeping the cogs of equipment and remote occupation turning; cleaning up the mess left behind in a less regulated era.


HOBART IS ONE of five international ports that are gateways to the Antarctic continent, 2,500 kilometres distant as the albatross might fly. Proximity has parlayed into widely recognised scientific, logistical and institutional kudos in engaging with the hostile and still largely uncharted cryosphere and the fathomless, freezing waters embracing it. Indeed the breadth and depth of Hobart's knowledge of ice, water and the life forms they nurture – strengthened by a culture of close collaboration across disciplines – is arguably unrivalled anywhere in the world. 'Maybe in San Diego, with the University of California and Scripps Institute of Oceanography, there might be something roughly equivalent,' ventures Dr Tony Press, a former Australian Antarctic Division chief and now head of the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre. But he doubts it.

Former Governor, retired Supreme Court Chief Justice, Tasmanian scientific champion and professed Antarctic tragic Sir Guy Green is unequivocal. 'I have no hesitation in saying Hobart is the most important Antarctic centre in the world. I say that because of the range of activity. No one else ticks all the boxes.'

Certainly Hobart's proximity to the ice has made it home to some of climate science's most cited authorities, grappling with the most urgent and contentious questions around global warming. How might warming influence the pulse of the great circulating currents that form in the deep Southern Ocean and define conditions for life everywhere? This is a sphere oceanography had barely begun to grasp even a decade ago. What will ocean acidification – 'the other CO2 problem' emerging as the chemistry of sea water changes, making it more hostile to shells and (in warmer waters) corals – mean for the populations of little planktonic foraminifera and pteropods at the bottom of the marine food chain? And how vulnerable to warming is the behemoth Antarctic ice sheet – which represents about 90 per cent of the planet's ice, and would raise the oceans sixty metres if it were ever to all melt?

These questions dominate the global science agenda, and will consume much of the debate shaping the Fifth Assessment Report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as it is wrangled into a consensus summary for presentation to policy makers for publication in September 2013, and ultimately into a Synthesis Report late the following year.

Hobart voices will be at the heart of the maelstrom. It's a potent measure of the clout and recognition of Tasmanian institutions that they are home to five of the twelve Australian scientists who are coordinating lead or lead authors of this IPCC report. They include the leaders of the critical sea levels and oceans chapters – Dr John Church and Dr Stephen Rintoul – who work in adjoining offices with a fine aspect over the Derwent anchorage when they lift their heads. A nearby office is occupied by Dr Susan Wijffels, who leads the international Argo project, which has deployed 3200 floating robots into the world's oceans. Every ten days the Argo buoys beam up reports on ocean conditions, providing a global map of temperature and salinity. They have revolutionised understanding of the oceans and climate.


THE BULK OF funding for the state's public research sector is vested through the University of Tasmania and two key federal government funded institutions – the Australian Antarctic Division and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. Tasmania hosts three main CSIRO operations – focusing on marine and atmospheric research, where Church, Rintoul and Wijffels are based; ecosystems sciences; and the Intelligent Sensing Systems Laboratory. CSIRO's sea and ice specialists might also work under the auspices of other related organisations – among them the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre (ACE CRC), the Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS) and the university's new Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS). Hobart also hosts the secretariat for the Commission for the Convention on Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which oversees marine conservation throughout the Southern Ocean, including the management of fisheries.

While the beguiling mysteries of the great white continent tend to monopolise the agenda, the reach and ambitions of the science undertaken in Tasmania are broader. They span atmospheric and forestry; agriculture, aquaculture and viticulture; medical and mining; communications and wildlife studies.

Key public institutions include the Cape Grim Baseline Air Pollution Station, where the world's purest air crosses the state's far northwest coast. It's one of three key international facilities capturing, recording and archiving air samples for the World Meteorological Organisation – a task critical to monitoring the vital signs of a changing atmosphere. Cape Grim does for the southern hemisphere what Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii does for the north – plotting escalating greenhouse gases, amongst them the carbon dioxide readings that trace the breath of the planet. Today the CO2 reading from Cape Grim nudges 390 parts per million, a rise of more than 15 percent on the first measurement in 1976. (In the same period concentrations of other powerful greenhouse gases, methane and nitrous oxide, have risen by about 20 and 8 per cent respectively.)

Then there's the Menzies Research Institute in Hobart, which conducts epidemiological research by drawing on the resource of the state's stable population base. It has distinguished itself with findings linking babies' sleeping positions and cot death, and its ongoing projects tackle cancer, mental health, dementia, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.


THE TASMANIAN GOVERNMENT boasts that there are more scientists per head of population in Hobart than any other Australian city, their presence testimony to the truism that geography is destiny. Tasmania's latitude and the unique research opportunities have defined a scientific identity as powerfully as every other facet of her character.

But in science, geography is merely the catalyst. A trawl through the archives of Tasmania's scientific heritage reveals that while it may determine the climate of the enterprise, other forces materialise to influence the weather. A handful of dynamic, brilliant characters attracted by the opportunity to pursue their own obsessions in turn capture and enthuse students and dreamers, bequeathing traditions and institutions that continue to evolve. At critical moments they have also brought – or followed – the money. Geography, aspiration, inspiration, economy and serendipity collude and, to be unscientific, magic happens.

Today many of the state's most senior scientists, their institutional overseers and their younger acolytes, perceive Tasmanian science sitting on the brink of another era. Not all are confident that the prevailing winds will take them where they ought to go, but some sense promise in the change.

In June 2014, after twenty years, funding for the ACE CRC runs out. Because of the current policy requirements for such centres, which nurture partnerships between publicly funded researchers and 'end-users' and ideally become self-sustaining, it is not eligible for a fourth round of funding. It's not a large budget – $5 million a year, give or take a bit. But about forty scientists work for the ACE CRC, about half borrowed from other institutions. It has a powerful catalysing effect, leveraging an estimated $90 million worth of in-kind contributions from other international science programs. There is a lot of anxiety around what its disappearance might mean, especially for critical work like ice core analysis. As one scientist observes, 'everyone is trying to figure out what happens after 2014 drop dead day'.

Funding for the national oceans monitoring system is also due to expire in June 2013, and with it physical, chemical and biological measurements from throughout the waters in Australia's economic zone. The University of Tasmania leads the national program.

Institutions are feeling the pinch of an era of public spending austerity. The Australian Antarctic Division's budget this financial year is lower than last, $99 million from $102 million (excluding capital), which means it is not keeping pace with inflation on its formidable logistics bill and faces the looming cost of replacing the ageing Aurora Australis. And while the CSIRO's overall budget increased slightly to $1.26 billion, the rise did not keep pace with increasing costs, compelling cuts to jobs and programs. The CSIRO will this year take delivery of a long-awaited new $120 million research vessel to replace the tired Southern Surveyor, the workhorse for national marine research for forty years, but there are concerns that its operating schedule will be squeezed by funding constraints.

The University of Tasmania's new Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies boasts a handsome $45 million building now taking shape on prime Hobart waterfront, but it too is bracing to share the pain of the budget squeeze on programs in the next year or so.

Given the fiscal writing on the wall, IMAS director Professor Mike Coffin argues there's an increasing appreciation in Hobart of the need to capitalise on the complementary characters of the 'big three' institutions: the Australian Antarctic Division, the CSIRO, and IMAS itself, where the university culture can provide a safe haven for pursuit of 'blue sky' science through Australian Research Council funds as well as applied projects for clients.

Between them they employ a thousand marine and Antarctic specialists – the greatest concentration of polar expertise anywhere in the world. University of Tasmania and CSIRO chiefs have 'both stated publicly that their aim is to double the size of the academic research community in Hobart in the next decade,' says Coffin. 'Melding the reputations and potential of the three entities, and selling them as the Hobart marine precinct, is probably our next big effort.'

As government research agencies worldwide become preoccupied with more immediate or applied concerns, Coffin sees a special role for IMAS. 'Universities are uniquely placed to do the kind of science that is absolutely necessary for advancing human knowledge of the oceans and Antarctica, but which isn't necessarily being done by government agencies because it doesn't have a short pay-off or relevance period,' he says.


THE TERM 'TIPPING point' has particular resonance and weight in climate science circles. Sinister, swift and inescapable, tipping points are by definition the 'critical threshold at which a tiny perturbation can qualitatively alter the state or development of a system'. They include the erosion of ice sheets as warmer water nibbles from below; the venting of potent methane hydrates into the atmosphere as warming releases them from their crypts; shifts in the mysterious mechanics of the deep ocean which feed the rhythms of wind, rain and currents on which nature turns and human civilisation is founded.

'Tipping point' is not a term scientists use lightly. But it is one echoing in the corridors of Tasmania's research facilities as they wrestle with balancing their ambitions around the urgent questions about a changing earth, and their budgets in an era of diminishing returns.

I've arranged to meet Dr John Church – recognised as one of the most authoritative voices on that most compelling of tipping points, future sea levels – at Salamanca Place, Hobart's postcard vantage point for soaking up history and hospitality. A short stroll from Church's CSIRO office, past the university's new wharfside IMAS building site and the home docks of the Aurora Australis and the French Antarctic vessel L'Astrolabe, it also allows a view into the potential of the still-evolving science precinct.

On the way to my appointment there is an inevitable argument with the cabbie about climate change. 'Should I have bothered?' I ask Church as we wait on our coffee. Certainly, he says. Church is a man of calm character and careful words. Being at the pointy end of the most diabolical and difficult issue in climate science, he picks a prudent course, as a rule not engaging with media or blogosphere polemicists – 'you get too distracted', and to what end? 'This is a long-term process of informing the public and convincing them of what the science says. That's not going to happen overnight by winning a minor, irrelevant skirmish. But having a one-to-one discussion with someone – that's different to the public posturing. I think it is worthwhile.'

As he compiles the next IPCC document distilling the latest findings from the world's sea ice specialists – a process he describes as 'very challenging, very demanding' – and girds himself for the fraught process of casting it to reflect their consensus, his guiding principle is to safeguard the integrity of the science. 'Without that, we lose credibility.'

John Church grew up and studied oceanography in Queensland. He was comfortably ensconced in Sydney when the CSIRO announced, in 1981, that it would be transferring his division to Hobart. Unexcited at the prospect of living in a wet, cold, windy place without an opera house he went looking for – and found – another job. 'Then I realised Hobart offered the best job I would ever get in Australia. I was an oceanographer interested in climate issues, and this was going to be the main centre. That proved to be true. I've never regretted that decision.'

He spent a lot of time on ships, collecting data and observations. He had several trips to Antarctica. He has led research programs for the CSIRO, the ACE CRC, the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions, and been a principal investigator for the NASA-French Space Agency satellite missions mapping ocean surfaces, collecting a swag of prestigious awards and positions along the way.

'They gave us a great chief – still the best I've known – Angus McEwan,' Church says of the early era in Hobart. 'He was a great scientist. They gave us money. Suddenly everyone wanted to come to Tasmania. We were recruiting top quality staff world-wide.' He recalls sighting the CV submitted by a young Stephen Rintoul, and calling one of the referees at the prestigious Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the United States who assured him 'you won't get him, we want him'. 'I ran down to administration and said "get on to this" – someone of that calibre is really important to an organisation.'

Through the 1980s and '90s scientists began to recognise the advantage of collaborating within their small but diverse community, and Church was part of a committee designed to draw on people from the university, the Australian Antarctic Division and the CSIRO to nut out a wish-list of research projects. 'People said "you'll never do all that", but we did almost all of it.' It was an era when money flowed, and when it materialised scientists were quick to produce plans about what they might do with it. 'Which is not the way of thinking now. People keep saying you have to wait to be told what to do. But I think scientists need to have a view of what the future should look like, and that view should be heard. We've had a remarkable history, considering our size,' Church reflects. He reckons the peak came early this century. 'There's a lot of financial pressure now – we don't have the same flexibility with resources that we used to. We're not growing any more.' But the core problem is not money, he argues. 'While lack of growth means things are more difficult, vision, quality of science, leadership and the relevance of the work can overcome this difficulty.'

Another scientist who capitalised on Hobart's halcyon era, learning, exploring and gaining an international reputation along the way, is glaciologist Dr Tas van Ommen, the Australian Antarctic Division's principal research scientist on ice cores and climate. He's also a key player in the ACE CRC, and a native Tasmanian whose Dutch father was part of its post-war immigrant wave.

In a previous life van Ommen was an astrophysicist working with NASA, drawn home in part by the enduring legacy of Dr Grote Reber, an American recognised as the father of radio astronomy (and builder of the world's first satellite dish) whose move to Hobart had a profound influence on Tasmanian science (more on him later). Through happy accident van Ommen found himself in the right place and time to reinvent himself as a glaciologist when the young discipline was still evolving. Today he is an authority on Antarctic ice cores – samples mined from the ice sheet that are the archives of lost atmosphere. Ice core analysis has been crucial to unlocking the story of the planet back through deep time. He is heir to an ongoing program collecting cores from Law Dome, a small icecap inland from Casey station that has earned an honoured place in the published climate archive for the penetrating clarity of the atmospheric narrative it preserves.

Van Ommen believes one of the Hobart science scene's great successes has been to turn what might have been an impediment – size and isolation – into a strength, learning to be quick off the mark responding to changing needs and circumstances, exploiting the intimacy of relationships between individuals, disciplines and institutions to collaborate. A recent strategic tack has been to focus on research with tangible implications for Australia – for example, research van Ommen led explains how Antarctic conditions influence the weather affecting farming across Australia's southwest. Tasmania earned its scientific credits by 'building around our natural advantage of proximity (to Antarctica and the Southern Ocean) a small, nimble program. This is what makes us dynamic.'

'But now, to be honest, we are at a tipping point,' van Ommen says. 'I think the benefit of being nimble and small comes with a vulnerability. It really does only take a series of "political accidents" – things nobody wanted or designed, funding sources drying up in synchrony, a GFC, the confluence of a few things like that and you get perverse outcomes. We are at a tipping point too in that a lot of the heavy hitters are in the second half or last third of their science careers. Now is the time to make sure they are imparting their knowledge to the next generation.' The loss of one or two high-profile scientists, or the bleeding of the grant money that keeps young players precariously solvent, might be the difference between emerging talents aspiring to work down south, and going elsewhere. There's a maturity and capability in the Hobart enclave that, according to a half-dozen senior scientists interviewed for this article, could either be harnessed and used to nurture the next crop of hot young post-docs, or blown away.

While John Church is not involved in the ACE CRC, he is concerned by the wider implications if there is no mechanism for continuing its work when the funding runs out in a few months. He 'has concerns' about the Hobart scene losing momentum, and more generally about the changing culture of scientific leadership, which he perceives as growing progressively more remote from the coalface. 'I think the science community bows to external pressures too much. I do think we need to speak out both on the science and what the science means for society, and we need to be more outspoken than we have been.'

This prompts a question I've asked of many climate researchers over recent years, usually once we've got to know each other trawling through the detail of their papers, or venturing into the field to gather data. 'How do you separate your concerns as a citizen, and your activity as a scientist – or do you?' In his work, Church explores, analyses and presents – in carefully moderated and footnoted scientific vernacular – visions of the future that are often horrifying. How does an individual manage the burden of such knowledge? What are the internal tipping points?

'I remember a journalist asking me in Copenhagen [at the 2009 UN climate conference] "don't you get awfully depressed?" ' Church recalls. 'And you can get depressed about what the science is saying about the future. But you also recognise that we can adapt to a lot of things if we don't stick our heads in the sand – if we mitigate and adapt. We can't stop all sea level change …but we don't want to have to adapt to the worst-case scenario. Informing those decisions is one of the things that drives me.' His work comes home. 'My children are quite green, one of them particularly. I think that was partly my influence.'

The critical factor for reconciling heart and head is, he says, the thrill of raw science, 'of discovery. That has to be part of it. You couldn't keep going otherwise – couldn't keep doing cutting-edge research. You could go to work and wind the handle, but that doesn't make a difference to the world.'

Here Church echoes an undercurrent of many of the conversations I have interviewing Tasmanian scientists working in a variety of disciplines – particularly those in middle age. While younger scientists now enter the field envisaging that they will be working on urgent questions about changing and future climate, researchers of Church's vintage began their careers in a very different environment, with a very different mindset.

Most pursued science because of a curiosity about how the world worked. They set out to explore Big Questions about life, the universe and everything, pursuing often abstract, distant, intriguing but rarely urgent problems. While they may have always nursed the hope that their work might 'make a difference', their motivations were generally founded in the quest for knowledge for the sake of it rather than evolving theories and datasets which might inform policy and shape business and politics. Van Ommen has recalled his days at NASA, as an 'almost poetic pursuit – we do because we think, a philosophical kind of thing'. By comparison, in digging up and reading ice cores, he's 'working on something that we need to know more about – and as fast as possible – [which] provides a bit of pleasant impetus to getting up in the morning'.

He's one of many scientists of a certain age who – by accident or design – were jettisoned out of the legendary sleepy hollows of institutional public science and into an era of imperative inquiry. Another is atmospheric physicist Dr Andrew Klekociuk, whose interest now is figuring out the effects on climate of humanity's effort to fix the hole we punched in the ozone layer, and which it now turns out was rather fortuitous in delaying the effects of warming over the Antarctic.

I first met Klekociuk on board the Antarctic Airbus on its first working run ferrying expeditioners to the ice. He spent the historic flight glued to the window looking for elusive noctilucent – night shining – clouds. These luminous blue trails reflect slicks of water vapour in a high layer of the atmosphere that is extremely dry and cold. They form only during the polar summer when warm air above the earth rises, expands and cools. While CO2 warms the lower atmosphere, it enhances the loss of heat through the upper atmosphere. A warmer earth would therefore be written in the sky by more frequent displays of these clouds. We saw one (we think).


KLEKOCIUK'S JOURNEY TO these clouds is entirely shaped by Tasmanian geography. His father fought in World War II in the famous Polish Carpathian brigade and was a Rat of Tobruk. After the war, given the choice by the British to begin a new life wherever he wanted, 'he chose to go as far away as possible', Klekociuk says. He was in the the first group of post-war immigrants to land in Hobart, destined for jobs with the Hydro-Electric Commission, and his picture appeared on the front page of The Mercury. He was then quickly dispatched into the highlands with a supply of horsehair, timber and hessian and instructions to build his sleeping quarters and bed.

A couple of years later he met a girl at a local dance and married, settling in Glenorchy, north of Hobart, and raising a family. Young Andrew was introduced to the night sky by his father, who with the help of an industrious mate – and the blind-eye of the hydro workshop overseers – built him a rudimentary telescope. 'I could look at the sun and sunspots. And I could see auroras at night.' This blossomed into an interest in physics, and in his final year at Cosgrove High School Klekociuk would sneak into university lectures on astrophysics and cosmic rays. He also haunted local meetings of the astronomical society where he got to know Professor Bill Ellis, the longtime chair of physics who had nurtured a world-class radio astronomy program by exploiting Tasmania's perfect position – under a hole in the ionosphere – to listen for signals from deep space.

'When you look at the very low frequencies, the universe is a bit of a fog, because you have electrons whizzing around scattering radio waves,' explains Klekociuk. 'But you can see the galaxy and map it in a different part of the spectrum and see different phenomena. And this was what Ellis basically pioneered, choosing Tasmania simply because of its low frequency radio characteristics.' It was Ellis who encouraged Grote Reber to relocate to Tasmania, where he spent the rest of his working life, the pair collaborating on landmark papers. In 1955 they rented a couple of hundred acres from a farmer near Dennistoun and rigged up a giant wire array from dozens of poles which was, stepped out, then the largest radio telescope in the world. Sir Guy Green recalls visiting, 'seeing these extraordinary looping wires strung across paddocks'.

Green identifies the powerhouse physics culture acquired through that era as one of the foundations of contemporary Tasmanian science. That and a spirit of creativity and innovation which he argues was hardwired into the colony from its earliest days. As evidence, he reels off accomplishments including the founding of Australia's first scientific society, the Van Diemen's Land Scientific Society, in 1829, and the first Royal Society outside Britain in 1843 ('quite extraordinary'); the 1840 building of Rossbank Observatory, which collected geomagnetic measurements and weather observations; and the first use of anaesthetic for surgery in the southern hemisphere, in Launceston in 1847.

Strength in physics helped the University of Tasmania acquire one of NASA's retired satellite dishes from Tidbinbilla in 1985, which in turn put Tasmania on the map as an important node in very-long-baseline interferometry – enlisting telescopes in different locations and pointing them simultaneously at a point in the sky, and with some mathematical wizardry turning them into one very big telescope.

This was the time when Andrew Klekociuk, Tas van Ommen and Nathan Bindoff – another IPCC lead author – all enrolled as physics students in the same year.

In the same era that Ellis and Reber were laying the groundwork for physics, the university already had a famous geology program, in particular in tectonics, fostered under Professor Sam Carey. He'd studied under Antarctic veteran Edgeworth David in Sydney, and came to know Mawson well. After an early career in Papua New Guinea he got a job as the government geologist in Tasmania, observing that it 'had a good variety of rocks around, compared with poor old Sydney or Brisbane'. As founding chair of the Department of Geology his work in the 1950s on continental drift put the University of Tasmania on the map.

The influence of these figures reverberates powerfully half a century later when talking to scientists at the height of their careers about their key influences.

Like his old physics and star-gazing classmate turned glaciologist, Tas van Ommen, Klekocuik had 'come a long way from radio astronomy', though never ventured so far from Tasmania. When invited to work at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he opted instead for Macquarie Island. He spent years building a LIDAR at Davis, looking at clouds in the upper part of the atmosphere and measuring the temperatures down lower. 'Through that whole process I got an appreciation of the big issue I thought I could contribute to, and that related to the ozone hole, its effect on climate.'


'TODAY, I'M CREATING and killing a lot of Antarctic blue whales. You have the power of the Almighty when you write simulation code :)' So tweeted Dr Natalie Kelly as she ploughed through preparations for a survey voyage out of New Zealand next month.

Kelly is one of the next generation of scientific talents emerging from Hobart. A statistician, she came to Tasmania in 2004 when the funding for her PhD at Melbourne University ran out, and she landed a job counting trees (modelling growth and yield) with Forestry Tasmania, finishing her thesis after hours. A couple of years later she quit her five-year contract to snap up a three-month summer position going to Antarctica counting krill, and within a season or two had graduated to whales. Seven years later, she's still at it, having led surveys from air and sea, and is a key member of the annual delegation to the International Whaling Commission. Her adventures prompt one colleague to dub her 'the Lara Croft of statistics'.

Kelly is employed by the CSIRO, but 'loaned' to the Australian Antarctic Division. She's hopeful that the momentum underwriting her projects will continue, and the investment in this year's blue whale project is significant. 'Apart from Japanese "scientific" whaling, it will be the largest coherent whale project in Antarctica,' she says.

Right now her area is vibrant and full of possibility, still with the allure for aspiring scientists that it gets to cherry pick the very best. But more broadly, 'funding is a problem – the razors are out, and jobs are going,' she says. It means that despite her determination and wish to stay in Tasmania, she – like many of her peers – is keeping an eye out for other work, just in case.

There's an 'air of nervousness', she says, and much of that is fed by uncertainty. 'There are as many storm clouds on the horizon now as I have seen in twenty years,' confirms Dr Stephen Rintoul. 'I've always told younger scientists, when they get concerned about where their next funding will come from, that it will be okay – something always comes up. This time it's a little less clear where something may come from, given the condition of federal budgets.'

Rintoul was lured to Hobart – via Harvard, Woods Hole, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton – because of his interest in the then largely unexplored Southern Ocean, imagining it would be a diverting couple of years en route to someplace else. Instead he found himself perfectly located to ride a phenomenal wave of oceanographic understanding, in particular into the mechanics and influence of the deep, cold waters at the ends of the earth. The World Ocean Circulation Experiment which ran through the 1990s taught scientists that understanding climate required them to delve into the links between ocean physics, biology and chemistry, which was where Hobart came into its own. 'I think we have had a large impact. Part was just geography, and that has helped, over the years, to attract some superb scientists.' Another part is the collaborative spirit of Tasmanian science, which Rintoul describes as 'fantastic – it's as little ego driven as any lab I've ever worked in'. He attributes some of the credit to funding mechanisms supporting group work, less brutal than the one-on-one contests for grants in the United States. Others also reckon the nature of field work in extreme environments – the enforced intimacy, shared logistics and one-in-all-in survival culture – has also helped foster networks between individuals, institutions and disciplines.

Work out of Tasmania heavily informed the conceptual shift recognising that 'a lot of the discussion about the climate of the future is about the degree to which oceans – particularly the Southern Ocean – continue to store heat and energy. And on the issue of how the oceans are changing, we've really only begun to scratch the surface. The measurements we have now show the Southern Ocean is warming; that it is warming at a faster rate and greater depth than the average; it's freshening (salinity is decreasing both at the surface and in the deepest layers); and that the volume of dense water sinking around the edges of the continent is decreasing rapidly – by about 50 per cent since 1970 in the region south of Australia. We don't really know why, but it could be important. That sinking of dense water is part of that global network of ocean currents – the pump – that influences climate so strongly.'

Rintoul is worried that the anticipated end of the ACE CRC in mid-2014 might reverberate damagingly through the wider scene, not least because of the role the centre has taken in exploring the most challenging issues – ice sheet behaviour (and, through them, sea levels) and ocean acidification.

Sir Guy Green hopes that if the CRC can't be renewed, that IMAS will take over its functions. Meanwhile he reckons that there's a strong case that if the bottom line on the support for longevity under the CRC model is ultimate profitability, 'it's just a question of applying the right time frame… I have absolutely no doubt that with the right scale and measuring criteria the ACE CRC would ultimately prove itself to benefit Australia and the world – the best of any. But it might take fifty years.'

IMAS director Mike Coffin provides some support for Green's optimism, and sees his institute shaping up as 'the natural home for the scientists who are currently in the ACE CRC'. Many are already based at the university's Sandy Bay campus. 'And of course there is a lot of interaction now. I think we will see some sort of joint future…of UTAS, CSIRO and the Antarctic Division. IMAS should play a key role in that joint venture.' Tasmania's federal politicians got together over dinner in Canberra late last year and pledged 'to actively work to ensure that the science that is the core of the ACE CRC continues'.

Whatever decisions are made about science in Tasmania in the next few months particularly, the repercussions will not merely be felt by institutions and individuals within the sector, Stephen Rintoul says. 'Scientifically it's a real challenge to provide the kind of knowledge we aim to provide…to attribute a certain signal to human causes or natural variability is not a trivial issue. As a society we all, as individuals and collectively, have some really tough decisions to make, and our role as scientists is to try to provide the knowledge that informs those decisions.'


BEFORE I LEAVE Hobart, I sit in on a third-year Antarctic ecology class at the sprawling university campus above Sandy Bay where biologist Dr Mark Hindell is telling the next generation of aspiring scientists pretty much the same thing. Over a couple of hours he presents theories, papers and questions around the effect of the ozone hole on zooplankton and consequent implications for the food chain; the repercussions for creatures around the Antarctic Peninsula as rapid warming makes the waters less salty as glaciers flow faster; the difficulty of interpreting shifts in populations of sea birds and mammals if time series of observations are too small or too gappy.

One of the big issues they will confront as researchers, he drills, is that 'because we've managed to meddle with the Southern Ocean in several ways at the same time' – warming, the ozone hole, fishing, whaling and then the subsequent recovery of whale populations – 'disentangling the effects to identify long-term global trends is a daunting challenge.' I find myself wishing some of the loud critics of so-called scientific 'groupthink' could be sitting in on this lesson.

And, poor student that I am, my mind drifts. Somewhere out in the deep ocean south of where we sit, Hindell has a little corps of creatures gathering up a bit more data, a bit more of what we need to know. Somewhere out there are elephant seals swimming around wearing tracking devices fitted by Hindell and his colleagues after being ferried down south by the Aurora Australis over the years. Now they beam into Hobart laboratories, via satellite, amazing insights into the seals' travel paths and foraging patterns. In recent years some seals have been recruited to an even more ambitious mission, having a device glued to them which might travel ten thousand kilometres until lost in the next moult, collecting and transmitting information on the temperature and character of conditions right down the water column every time the seal dives deep.

Performing seals indeed.

7 November 2012

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review