As the effects of climate change take hold in Australia and around the world, the spotlight on scientists to help develop answers to the climate crises has never been brighter.
From last summer’s bushfires to the recent U.S. wildfires, the world’s attention has been irrevocably turned to how climate change will affect our future – and what we can do in response.
Meet, five leading women in STEM – four Australians and one New Zealander – who were all named Fellows in the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Program’s Climate Edition, recognising them as emerging leaders in science and awarding each a $25,000 grant to further their research combating the effects of climate change.
The Women in Science Program helps address the underrepresentation of women in science; today, only about 28% of scientific researchers are women.
5 women leading the way in STEM to help mitigate the effects of climate change
Advanced computer modelling to predict how long Australia has until cities are under sea level
As ice sheets melt and sea levels rise, coastal cities are facing uncertain futures. With 40% of the global population and 85% of the Australian population currently living within coastal regions, the rising of sea levels caused from the melting of Antarctica’s ice sheets is of major concern.
Australian National University’s Dr Adele Morrison is seeking to better understand ocean circulation around Antarctica’s ice shelves, undertaking advanced computer modelling to study how changing ocean currents will impact the melting of the Antarctic sheet and determine how long we have until our cities are at risk.
“At the moment the best estimate, assuming continued emissions, is up to 1.1 m of sea level rise by the end of the century – equating to over 600 million people living below the projected high tide line,” said Dr Morrison.
“If all of Antarctica was to melt, it would increase sea level by almost 60m – that would see cities like Sydney disappear. Although the sense of discovery is exciting, it’s also a scary future if we cannot curb the progression of climate change.”
“We can choose a future with less sea level rise. By limiting global warming to below 2°C, we can limit sea level rise to only around 40cm by 2100. But we need to act fast.”
Working with extreme corals to buy time for the Great Barrier Reef
At present, Australia potentially stands to lose the Great Barrier Reef as we know it within our lifetime, without intervention. Beyond dramatically reducing carbon emissions, very few options exist to reduce coral destruction.
Dr Emma Camp, a coral biologist and marine bio-chemist at UTS is working with species of ‘super-corals’ that are resilient to temperature change, low pH and oxygen stress.
After back-to-back marine heatwaves in 2016 and 2017, innovative reef restoration is desperately needed.
“The GBR needs time. While we put pressure on governments and industries to tackle carbon emissions, we are also exploring innovative reef restoration, to ensure the long-term survival of pockets of live coral,” said Dr Camp.
“I am finding the most resistant corals to create these pockets as well as understand what makes them resistant.”
With 30% of the Great Barrier Reef already lost, the genetic traits of these resilient corals may buy more time to lower emissions and protect the rest of the Reef.
“Climate change is threatening coral reefs and we may lose reefs – as we know them – within our lifetime,” said Dr Camp.
“We must take action immediately to save Australia’s beautiful, life-sustaining reefs.”
Saving homes from bushfires with a coating made from industrial waste
As summer approaches and the effects of climate change lead us into an era of increasingly-severe natural disasters, many Australians fear a future of out-of-control bushfires. Communities in fire-prone areas urgently need better protection for their homes.
RMIT University’s Dr Kate Nguyen will use her grant from the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Program to help create buildings that are greener and bushfire safe by developing a sustainable ceramic-like coating, made from industrial waste, to protect homes.
“Like millions of Australians, I watched with horror the bushfires that ravaged part of the country earlier this year,” said Dr Nguyen.
“I hope my research can protect many homes in fire-stricken areas.”
The protective coating is produced from waste often from the coal and mining industry, creating a sustainable use for materials that would otherwise go to landfill. The development process also emits up to 90% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional manufacturing approaches, and will increase the thermal efficiency of homes, therefor requiring less energy to heat and cool.
Accelerating the jump to next-gen lithium battery tech with higher-energy and longer-lasting batteries
Accelerating the transition to renewable energy is essential in all areas of our everyday life in Australia, including transport; to make the jump to vehicles with zero emissions, fast-tracking lithium battery tech is crucial, according to CSIRO’s Dr Marzi Barghamadi.
“We all want electric cars that will allow us to drive longer distances with one charge,” said Dr Barghamadi.
“Next-generation lithium batteries with higher energy will make this a reality in the near future.”
Dr Barghamadi is working to address the critical challenges with lithium metal battery tech to meet the required energy demand in different sectors such as transport and space.
“Lithium batteries have a much lower environmental impact than fossil fuels. So, the aim is to replace more fossil fuels with these batteries, especially in the transport sector,” said Dr Barghamadi.
“But first we must create batteries with higher energy and a longer cycle life, and, at the same time, address potential safety issues for lithium metal batteries.”
As a battery is discharged and charged, the formation of microstructures on the surface of the lithium anode, known as dendrites, causes capacity loss and safety concerns, which Dr Barghamadi will seek to overcome with the support of the L’Oréal-UNESCO Fellowship and grant.
Moving rivers to restore the lifeblood of communities
Estuaries around the world are a vital resource for coastal communities, providing a cultural and economic hub and supporting a diverse range of marine species; sadly, many estuaries are already degraded and they are at further risk due to their sensitivity to climate change, such as due to rising sea levels, ocean acidification and changes in rainfall that will alter river inflows.
Dr Shari Gallop from the University of Waikato, New Zealand, is looking at the science of using nature-based engineering to move rivers back into estuaries and restore coastal environments.
“Estuaries provide an important resource for communities,” said Dr Gallop, “But many have been degraded due to poor decisions and management. Estuaries are vulnerable to climate change because they are exposed to the processes of land, river and marine environments.”
To prevent losing the health of our estuaries, Dr Gallop is researching nature-based options in environmental engineering, such as removing sea walls to allow tides to come back onto reclaimed farmland, removing dams, and moving rivers back into estuaries.
“The ultimate goal is to successfully restore estuaries, to restore the environment for the people,” said Dr Gallop.