Southern Cross Uni Professor to lead multiple ARC projects, work with NASA in 2022

Published 9 February 2022
Professor Bradley Eyre

Southern Cross University biogeochemist Professor Bradley Eyre has secured funding for two Australian Research Council (ARC) Discovery Projects in a single round, and will work with the US space agency NASA on one of them.

Professor Eyre from the University’s Faculty of Science and Engineering said he was thrilled to achieve the rare feat of leading two Discovery Projects from the same round, worth a total of $893,000. His ground-breaking research is aimed at better understanding the global carbon cycle – which is the biogeochemical exchange of carbon between the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, land and fossil fuels.

The projects ‘Resolving the role of dryland flooding in the global carbon cycle’ ($456,000, DP220100918), and ‘Shallow water carbonate sediment dissolution in the global carbon cycle’ ($437,000, DP220101263) are part of the University’s broader success in the latest ARC funding announcements.

Other successful Southern Cross researchers will lead a further Discovery Project and an ARC Linkage Project.

The federal government announcements in late December topped off a significant year for Southern Cross University in terms of ARC success, with the University granted close to $3 million from the ARC across six projects.

Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research) Professor Mary Spongberg described the outcome as a “stunning result for Southern Cross”.

Professor Eyre previously led two successful ARC Discovery Project grants in a single round in 2008, but 2021 will be one to remember as he led three successful ARC projects in total: the two recently-announced Discovery Projects and an ARC Linkage Project announced mid-year (LP200200910). This was off the back of another ARC Linkage project awarded at the end of 2020.

Professor Eyre’s latest Discovery grants mark his 31st and 32nd ARC-funded projects, and will take him to some of the most remote places on earth: from Australia’s flooded inland deserts to the shallow ocean floor along the Great Barrier Reef.

“It’s outstanding news to receive both grants and get to work on the things that not only excite me immensely, but also contribute to better understanding of our global carbon cycle,” Professor Eyre said.

“We’re looking ahead to a big year and I’m excited to get started on these two projects while continuing to work on last year’s successful ARC Linkage project about how aquatic coastal networks regulate nitrogen removal.”

Details of Professor Eyre’s successful Discovery Projects:

Resolving the role of dryland flooding in the global carbon cycle, Professor Bradley Eyre, Discovery Project, awarded $456,000 (DP220100918)

Millions of litres of water sit on dryland floodplains every few years and yet its contribution to the carbon cycle remains largely unknown.

Professor Bradley Eyre’s research aim is to determine whether flooded drylands release large amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, which may account of some of the planet’s missing sources of methane and inform future management of global carbon cycle and earth climate systems.

“This research builds on our previous work at Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre in Central Australia in 2019 when it was in flood. It’s very remote so my colleague Professor Dirk Erler and I hired a helicopter to gather water samples along the flooded rivers and lakes and became the first scientists to measure greenhouse gas emissions from an inland salt lake and associated flooded river systems,” Professor Eyre said.

“That pilot study gave us the preliminary data to make the research submission and this is now the follow-on project from that. We’ll now prepare everything and then wait for Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre’s next flooding event to do some more detailed sampling, as well as some sampling in the dry, which may lead to the discovery of some of the planet’s missing sources of methane.”

Professor Eyre said he was thrilled to be collaborating with Dr Ben Poulter from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Dr Pep Canadell from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) on the project.

“NASA will be doing satellite work. We’ll go out and collect greenhouse gas samples and estimate emissions from the field measurements, and NASA will also estimate emissions using satellite data – so we’ll combine these different techniques to get a better estimate of emissions.

“This ties into NASA’s work in understanding our planet better and will inform CSIRO’s modelling of the global carbon cycle.”

Shallow water carbonate sediment dissolution in the global carbon cycle, Professor Bradley Eyre, Discovery Project, awarded $437,000 (DP220101263)

This project will determine the amount of alkalinity and calcium released as sands on the continental shelf dissolve, which will contribute to a better understanding of the global carbon cycle.

Professor Bradley Eyre will return to the Great Barrier Reef for the project, his third ARC grant on this research topic.

“This research on carbonate sediment dissolution is significant as it builds on our previous research published in Science, extending beyond coral reefs to a broader range of ocean sediments,” he said.

Professor Eyre explained the gist of the project: The oceans are acidifying due to the uptake of CO2 from the atmosphere associated with the burning of fossil fuels. When seafloor carbonate sediments dissolved they absorb some of this CO2, slowing down this ocean acidification. We believe carbonate sediment dissolution is happening more rapidly than estimates used in current models, and therefore predictions about the rate of ocean acidification may be over-estimated.

“But the other side of the story is the sediments also form the backbone of reefs. Coral reefs are composed of carbonate sediments, so if sediments dissolve the reefs are essentially going to dissolve away as well, which is what our work has focussed on previously.

“We’ll be working at various sites across the Great Barrier Reef and with international collaborators including Professor Dirk De Beer from the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Germany and Dr Tyler Cyronak, my former PhD student from Southern Cross University, who is now tenured at Nova Southeastern University in the US.

“Leading two ARC projects from the same round and with people across the globe is a huge task and coordination effort, but we’re recruiting a number of research fellows and students and are excited to get these projects going.”

So the global carbon cycle is essentially the flow of carbon around the planet. Global warming is a side effect of the disruption of the global carbon cycle. Because we're essentially burning fossil fuels we're making those changes very rapidly, so things that took a thousand or ten thousand years we're making those changes in a hundred years now. That's why we need to understand all the flows and the reservoirs in this global carbon cycle.

I’m leading two of these ARC discovery projects. The first of these projects is resolving the role of dry land flooding in the global carbon cycle. These dry land areas actually also take up CO2 out of the atmosphere and it's been shown recently that that part of that uptake is significant on a global scale but the one thing that that is missing from that work is they haven't looked at the effects of flooding on these dry lands.

So this project is actually about quantifying those greenhouse gas emissions from these flooded dry land. The theory from it is that that there'll be a significant contribution at least a few percent to 10 percent to global greenhouse gas emission.

I have NASA who will be using satellite imagery to quantify the emissions from these flooded dry lands as well so we'll be measuring the emissions from the bottom up, going out and taking field samples, and they'll actually be using satellite imagery to actually estimate emissions as well.

So we'll be putting those two approaches together the second project is looking at carbonate sediment dissolution. We're putting anthropogenic CO2 into the atmosphere when we burn fossil fuels. A proportion, or about 30 percent of that, is being absorbed by the oceans. When you absorb that CO2 it's also making the oceans more acidic so we term that ocean acidification.

Now there's a natural process that occurs in the ocean because the oceans are lined with carbonate sediments, particularly on the continental shelves, carbonate sediments - you can think of coral reefs - when they actually dissolve these sediments dissolve they actually consume some of the CO2 in the sea water so it actually is a way of taking up some of that CO2 that we're putting in the atmosphere and into the ocean and also that reduces the amount of ocean acidification that occurs.

The role of carbonate sediment dissolution we think is underestimated so this project is about putting a better estimate on the role of that carbonate dissolution in their global carbon budget.

Overview of Southern Cross University’s other successful ARC grants in this round:

  • Strengthening relationships for young people in residential care, Associate Professor Lynne McPherson, Round 1 Linkage Project, awarded $429,569 (LP210100177)

Read more on this project here.

  • Decoding the geochemical record of early human fossils, Associate Professor Renaud Joannes-Boyau, Discovery Project, awarded $368,118 (DP220100195)
  • Southern Cross University is also a project partner on Griffith University’s Discovery Project ‘Early art culture and occupation along the northern route to Australia’ (DP220100462), with Associate Professor Joannes-Boyau a collaborator, and Southern Cross is expected to receive around 30 per cent of the project funding.

More information on Associate Professor Renaud Joannes-Boyau’s latest Discovery projects is coming soon.

Media contact: Jessica Nelson 0417288794 or scumedia@scu.edu.au