Featured Fellows

First Australian to win prestigious global Climate Change award

January 10 2019

Professor John Church, from UNSW’s Climate Change Research Centre, has won the 2019 BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Climate Change.

Academy Fellow Professor John Church from the Climate Change Research Centre, UNSW Sydney

Academy Fellow Professor John Church from the Climate Change Research Centre, UNSW Sydney, is the first Australian awarded the BBVA Foundation Frontiers Knowledge Award in Climate Change.

As the world’s top sea level expert, Professor Church is recognised for narrowing the causes of rising seas, linking satellite observations with in-situ measurements and numerical modelling to identify the human impact on sea level changes and discovering that the rate of increase is accelerating over time.

He shares the prize and €400,000 prize money with French space geodesist Anny Cazenave, a specialist in satellite altimetry – the measurement of the form and dimensions of Earth, and British climate scientist Professor Johnathan Gregory, an expert in ocean heat uptake and climate sensitivity.

Forecasts developed from their research warn that without drastic greenhouse gas reductions sea levels could rise more than one metre by the end of this century, threatening homes of 100 million people living on the coast. Their findings have been instrumental in improving the understanding of how the earth system works, enabling more solid projections.

One of the world’s major science awards

Professor Church said this award is a recognition of the importance of the science.

“It also acknowledges the progress that has been made over recent decades and the role that the three of us have made in contributing to the science,” he said.

The prize is rated as one of the world’s 99 major science awards by IREG List of International Academic Awards, with a reputation score of 0.59 (a Nobel Prize has a score of 1.0).

Since the early 1990s, sea levels have been climbing at a rate of three millimetres each year, giving a mean increase of eight centimetres over the past 25 years. The researchers’ work identifies that warmer oceans and melting ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, caused by human footprint, is causing the pace of sea-level increases to accelerate.

“Greenhouse gases have been the dominant cause of sea level rises in the second half of the 20th century.

“From about 1970, they were responsible for more than 70 per cent of the ongoing rise,” said Professor Church.

Sophisticated models

Researchers used satellite observations to give a global picture of how sea levels are rising, and in-situ observations, which have a longer record and allow scientists to look back over the 20th century and earlier.  Professor Church is recognised for developing sophisticated models linking sparse tidal gauge information around the world with satellite data to reveal how much sea levels are rising.

“Without significant, urgent and sustained greenhouse gas mitigation we will cross the threshold leading to many metres of sea level rise over coming centuries. In my opinion, we are uncomfortably close to these thresholds,” said Professor Church.

“The mitigation needs to be substantially more than Australia’s, and the worlds, current commitments.

“We need to recognise the need to act, develop short- and long-term goals and plans to achieve these mitigation goals.

“We have the technology and knowledge – what we lack is the will to make it happen,” he said.

All countries with ocean coastlines will be affected by continued sea level increase.

Impacted people in deltaic regions

“The biggest number of potentially impacted people live in deltaic regions around the world such as Bangladesh, parts of Vietnam and low-lying small island nations are particularly vulnerable.”

About 100 million people lie within one metre of current high tide levels. With more people moving to the coast, the sea level rise Professor Church is projecting for this century will affect tens to hundreds of millions of people.

“In the short term sea level rises will increase the frequency of what is often caused ‘nuisance flooding’ in coastal regions and, in the long term, will be a real issue that requires a response,” he said.

“It will also add to the height of severe coastal storm surges making the impacts even more severe.”

Now in its 11th year, the international award recognises significant contributions in the areas of scientific research and cultural creation. Professor Church’s award will be presented at a ceremony in Madrid in June. Prize recipients are selected from a large global cohort of applicants from leading institutions.

 

See original story on UNSW website.

Professor John Church, from UNSW’s Climate Change Research Centre, has won the 2019 BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Climate Change. Photo UNSW Science

Professor John Church, from UNSW’s Climate Change Research Centre, has won the 2019 BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Climate Change. Photo UNSW Science