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"Mother Earth births everything for us.
Father sky carries the water and oxygen for us to breathe."

Yuin Elder Max Dulumunmun Harrison, 2009

28th February 2019
Can sea level science cast light on our past and our future?


Leading sea level scientist Professor John Churchspeaks with artist Lisa Robertsabout the importance of terminology in sea level science and communication.
He explains his experience of aligning data from sea level science with an ancient Australian dreaming story.

John was Chief Scientist on the voyage that took me to Antarctica in 2002. We arrived at the ice just as news came in that our Australian Prime Minister John Howard and American President George Bush refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. That experience made me realise the value of learning directly from scientists in the field and the value of the arts as languages of relationship, to combine scientific data and subjective responses. At the time I did not know how much this moment would define my purpose, and recognition of the arts as languages of the spirit.

Lisa RobertsMonday 20th January 2020



John Church (following discussion about languages of sciences and arts):
My colleagues, a whole group of us, have just submitted a long complex paper on terminology...

Lisa Roberts:
Have you?

...about sea level, what terms do we use, and how should we use them. And what shouldn't we use, because people misinterpret them, and confuse them. So terminology is important.

Absolutely. Particularly when it enters the mainstream media realm, and people want to misinterpret.
I want to ask about your hand in helping put a date to a dreaming story that somebody brought to you, about sea levels rising.

Ah yes, I got an Email... saying that there's a story that had been written about a location where an island was cut off from the mainland, and it implied that sea level was 7 or 8 metres or less than what it is now at that time. So when would have that been? So I looked back at the sea level curve and it must have been about 7 thousand years ago, that story.... so I call up [other people] to look at that. It's not really my expertise there, so I actually work a lot with Kurt Lambeck as well, and he was also very interested.

Lisa Roberts:
Is he an Australian?

He's from Dutch parents. He grew up mostly in Australia but he must have been born overseas, and he's worked a lot of his time in France. He's living mostly in Australia now. He goes to Europe, and a few months here. And he's a geodesist. That's someone who studies the shape of the earth and how it's varying with time, so [that's measured with] GPS systems. They rely on satellites, and that's all geodesy: What's the shape of the earth? How does it vary? So he's interested in historical sea levels. He's actually incidentally won the last Prime Ministers Prize for science... He basically confirmed what I'd said, so it was 8 thousand years ago. So we just sent that information back and the response I got was, so happy to have received that information, it confirms, is consistent with the story from their dreamtime... so 8 thousand years is not forever, but it's a long time... and at that time, sea level had been visibly rising. Not day-to-day, but every year.

Lisa Roberts:
So it was a time of rapid rise?

Rapid rise, yes.

Lisa Roberts:
What would the cause of that be?

So it's after the last glacial maximum. So the last cold period on earth. Sea level was about 130 metres below present sea level, and was about 20 thousand years ago. .And the it rose rapidly at about an average of over a metre per century, for many thousands of years, until about 7-8 thousand years ago, and then it slowed down a lot. And that was because there was lots of ice on north America and northern Europe. And those ice sheets flowed into the ocean. So there were peak rates during that period... Probably at this time [it was] a metre, or a bit more than a metre [rising] per century.