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Understanding landscapes
Interview with Professor Robert Wasson
by Stacy Oon

rofessor Robert (Bob) Wasson will be joining the Department of Geography at the National University of Singapore (NUS) in July 2011. He is a geomorphologist with an international reputation in palaeoenvironmental reconstruction, river catchment processes and responses to changes of climate and land use, development and application of geochemical tracers of material movement through river catchments, and cross-disciplinary methods that attempt to bridge the gap between the human and natural sciences. Bob Wasson recently stepped down from his role as Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research) at Charles Darwin University, Australia. As a relatively new university in the Northern Territory, he helped to shape its research profile and played a leading role in many environmental management initiatives in the tropical north of Australia. Before moving to Darwin in 2004, he was the Director of the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies at the Australian National University, where he also served as the Dean of Science. Despite the heavy burdens of administration, he has maintained many field projects and strong links between Asia and Australia. Stacy Oon, a geography postgraduate working on the applications of diatoms in environmental reconstruction, interviewed Professor Wasson.

i: How did you become involved in geomorphological research?

Bob: A friend in Sydney got me interested in Geology and Palaeontology when I was about 13 years old. For my sixteenth birthday, I asked my parents for a copy of Thornbury’s ‘Geomorphology’ because it looked interesting. And so it was. I became captivated by the shape and beauty of landforms well before I understood any of the science. At Sydney University, I studied Geology and Geography and realized that Geomorphology was for me. I still love the beauty of landforms, and now understand some of the science.

i: Could you tell us about your research interests?

Bob: I have ranged over topics as diverse as desert sand dunes, coastal landforms, river catchment processes, palaeoclimate, and the uses of Geomorphology in natural resource management. I am currently focussed on extreme floods and their geomorphic and societal impacts. This topic became an obsession living in the Australian tropics for the last seven years where so much of the ecosystem is conditioned by cyclones, coastal storm surges, and floods. And where you are always on the lookout for the cyclone that will get you. Climate change is likely to intensify these extremes of weather, so we need a sound and long baseline against which to judge future variability. The standard records based on satellite images of cyclones and gauges in rivers are too short. We need the geologic record of these events over millennia.

i: In 1983, you wrote an article, published in Nature, about the factors that determine desert dune types. This article has since been cited over a hundred times, been called a “classic” paper by Progress in Physical Geography, is studied by students world-wide (including myself) and is now even being used to examine environmental conditions on Mars. Can you tell us about the history behind this article and how it has impacted your life?

Bob: The content of the article with my colleague Robert Hyde (a meteorologist) came to me while I was playing tennis with my wife in Canberra. I had already calculated the amount of sand in different kinds of desert dunes worldwide to get an idea of the depth of erosion needed to supply them with sediment. There were some previously published ideas about the role of wind regimes in producing different kinds of dunes, and my calculations showed that the various dune types contained different amounts of sand. But it was clear that some dunes accumulate sand while others pass it along to other dunes. This difference was likely to be the result of the wind regime. So I put the two ideas together, namely wind regime and sand volume, and the dune types can then be explained more readily than by using only one variable. The impact of the work has been long-lasting and I am delighted by that. It is actually a simple idea, but they are often the best. I had ‘fallen’ for desert dunes when I saw their pattern from the air, recalling my first interest in the shape and beauty of landforms.

They also cover vast areas, 40% of Australia for example, and so an explanation of their forms is an important global issue for geomorphologists. But pattern alone is not enough to provide an explanation. One of the ongoing challenges of our field is to link form with process. I believe that Robert Hyde and I did that, but with months of data gathering in the field to back it up. I should note here that you need a very patient life partner to support you in such an endeavour.

i: In recent years, you have increasingly focused on interdis-ciplinary human-environment research, specifically looking at environmental management and conservation. Could you share a few of these projects with us?

Bob: My first serious fieldwork was in western New South Wales (Australia) for my Honours year. While I was studying fundamental aspects of landform development, I could not ignore the evidence of land degradation caused by the grazing of domestic and feral animals. This stayed with me as I worked both in the Australian and Indian deserts, and was my focus when I joined CSIRO, Australia’s Commonwealth Government research agency. I was expected to provide a historical context to the current state of land and water resources. My first job was to identify the sources of sediment reaching lakes and reservoirs, and the trajectories in time of these sources so that effective soil conservation could be planned and implemented. This led to the development of geochemical tracers of sediment sources, coupled eventually with the geologic and geomorphic methods that enable the history of a landscape to be unravelled. I have now applied this approach in India, Pakistan, Nepal, China, Indonesia and Timor Leste. But it was all natural science and that is not enough if you want to make a difference. Humans cause the problems and can fix them. So we need to link natural science with human institutions and with the history of policy successes and failures. While I do not pretend to be a social scientist, I am married to one. Merrilyn has helped me understand a very different worldview. But we should recall that Geography was once the discipline within which these now differing worldviews were combined, or was it one worldview that has now splintered?

i: How does your background as a geomorphologist and earth scientist contribute to these management issues?

Bob: The ecosystem includes soils, rocks, landforms, and of course the biota. And among the biota , humans are now pervasive. So any management of Earth’s surface needs to include the Earth Sciences as well as the Human Sciences. The surface of Earth is a product of history, and without an understanding of the contingencies of history we are condemned to an equilibrium view which in many cases simply doesn’t work. Geology and Geomorphology are historical sciences and therefore are well placed to contribute to a test of the equilibrium view at the very least. Floods are a good example. We have records of floods in sedimentary deposits showing that large floods come in clusters. This finding has consequences for engineers designing dams in particular. While this is a current preoccupation of mine, most of my management-relevant research has been in identifying sources of sediment in river catchments. I am pleased to say that this research has led to fundamental changes in thinking and action by catchment managers.

i: You have conducted re-search all over the world. Do you have any fieldwork expe-rience that you particularly treasure?

Bob: I have been very fortunate to see some of the world’s greatest landscapes. Standing on a dune in the centre of Australia as the sun rises, drinking tea in a small shop near one of the sources of the Ganga River in the Himalaya, digging a pit in the floodplain of the Murrumbidgee River in Australia as the grass waves in the breeze, climbing a debris flow channel, cutting through some of the remaining tropical rainforest on the flank of Mount Cablaci in Timor Leste as a gentle rain falls - these are all wonderful memories. But my favourite experiences have been in the Himalaya and Timor Leste. Coming from a flat continent, I realize now that mountains have a special place in my imagination.

i: What do you consider your most valuable contribution to academia thus far?

Bob: To have shown that the boundary between so-called basic and applied research is illusory. If you begin with an applied problem (e.g. where is the sediment in this reservoir coming from?), it is often necessary to do some basic research to develop an efficacious approach (e.g. how do geochemical tracers behave in soils). To have done this with students is particularly pleasing.

i: You will soon be arriving in Singapore to take up the role of Visiting Professor in Geography at the National University of Singapore. Why did you choose Singapore?

Bob: NUS is a world-class university and I am delighted to have the opportunity to be part of it. Singapore is a beautiful and vibrant city which my wife and I have visited many times. Also, environmental change in the tropics is of global significance, and students studying at NUS are likely to have an important role in both understanding and managing the change. Asia is where the action is as India and China return to their former roles as global giants. So why not Singapore?

i: What do you hope to accomplish at the National University of Singapore?

Bob: I hope that my experience and expertise will be of value to students at NUS.I will also be collaborating with some very fine colleagues at NUS in research. And I hope to complete a book on river catchments tailored to managers with little or no access to the scientific literature.

i: While at your previous appointment at Charles Darwin University, you built up strong research collaborations with countries within Southeast Asia, such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Timor Leste. What research do you plan to conduct in Singapore and this region?

Bob: I will be working with colleagues at NUS and elsewhere on flood histories and impacts. I also hope to continue my work on catchment erosion and sedimentation and the impacts on flooding and loss of agricultural land in Eastern Indonesia and Timor Leste. In conjunction with an anthropologist, I have been comparing the Western natural science view of the rivers and catchments in Timor Leste with the views of the local people (what some would call traditional knowledge).There is a high level of agreement which is good news for plans to use science as the basis of management without engendering animosity among the local people.

i: Being passionate about graduate teaching and research, what advice would you give to a budding researcher in the earth sciences?

Bob: My advice to any researcher, in the Earth Sciences or any other field, is maintaing the hunger. Without a hunger for research, you will not put in the hours and the effort necessary to gain new knowledge. And hunger is maintained by continuing to do research that is fresh and exciting. Continuing to do the same research, or publishing the same paper in different guises in several journals, leads to stagnation. So do not be afraid to test yourself with new ideas and challenging methods!

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