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Goodbye to Professor Peter Saenger


Zoe Satherley
1 October 2007
Professor Peter Saenger retired from Southern Cross University last week, content in knowing that he is leaving while he is still at the top of his field as a renowned world expert on mangrove research and coastal management.

His career has spanned more than three decades, at the University, in private practice as an environmental consultant, and as the author of numerous scientific papers, book chapters and books on the environment.

Professor Saenger first came to the Lismore campus from the Queensland Institute of Technology in 1985, as senior lecturer in coastal management at the then Northern Rivers College of Advanced Education. He quickly established himself as an international leader in his field and was appointed Associate Professor at the University of New England – Northern Rivers in 1989, and full Professor at Southern Cross University in 1992.

“My task when I came was to play a leading role in helping to establish our coastal management program,” he said. “At the time it was a pioneering course and the first of its kind in Australia.

“This was and still is the perfect location for coastal management students to study in, because within a short drive of the campus you can see everything from coastal erosion and floodplains, to the rampant commercial development of the Gold Coast, the coral reefs of the Solitary Islands and the local mangroves and wetlands in both directions. It provides the perfect training ground.

“Since those early days the program has broadened out considerably to cover many other aspects of environmental science and the School of Environmental Science and Management now has one of the strongest research profiles of any school in the University.”

And on the topic of research, Professor Saenger has some strong points of view he is happy to put forward on the topic of global warming.

For a start, he believes crucial informed debate about the causes of global warming is being stifled by political correctness.

“Everyone wants to blame greenhouse gases as the main culprits but I believe they form only a part of the overall cause of planetary warming,” he said. “I think we also have to look at the very clear data on solar cycles. The sun is going through a hotter period than what has been considered ‘normal’ over the past few thousand years and this is having a major impact on world land and sea temperatures.

“If we keep the blinkers on and only look at CO2 as the primary cause of global warming, we may well miss other equally important causes which will need different solutions.

“If the sun is the primary cause of global warming then planting trees and increasing cloud cover would be better strategies than reducing greenhouse gas emissions, for example.

“I think the climate change debate has been hijacked by certain scientists and politicians who are performing a scientific stunt, putting forward strategies based on unproven scientific theories.”

Called on to lend his expertise in coastal management and restoration to Thailand, to help them rebuild their devastated coastline after the Asian tsunami, Professor Saenger said he was saddened but not surprised to see the locals rebuilding their tourist accommodation back on the waterfront.

“There will be another tsunami – there is no doubt about it,” he said. “The only question is when and how severe.

“People want their waterfront views and tourists want to be able to step out of their cabin and onto the beach, but they may pay for the price of that location with their life.”

Professor Saenger worked in Thailand advising on how to re-establish damaged coastal mangroves and how to re-seed areas which had been completely destroyed.

Interestingly, along the Bangladeshi coast, where Professor Saenger previously has been involved in re-claiming coastal sand and mud flats with plantations of harvestable mangroves, there was very little tsunami damage, despite being a direct target for the tsunami wave surge.

“The mangroves took the brunt of the impact and acted as a buffer zone to protect the coastline and the population,” he said.

“This is a lesson the Thai and Indonesian people should learn from, but they haven’t as there is too much commercial pressure and greed for ocean-front tourist development sites. This choice to re-build on the waterfront is putting people’s lives in danger once more.”

Professor Saenger said the north and west Australian coasts were likely to be struck by a tsunami at some point – simply because they were in a direct line with the highly active volcanic regions of Asia, while the east coast was more protected by virtue of the Great Barrier Reef and the fact that the major source of any shock wave was likely to be from either South America or Hawaii – both very far away.

As far as sea level rises go, if (as predicted by other scientists) sea levels rise by 50 centimetres in the next 100 years, lots of places are going to be gurgling, including London, Bangkok, Amsterdam and Hamburg, to name a few. But Professor Saenger isn’t convinced it will be that severe.

“Sea levels have gone up and down by 120 metres at least five times over the past two million years, so that is nothing new for the planet,” he said.

“Mostly the seas retreat when we have an ice-age. During past Ice Ages you could have walked to Tasmania or Papua New Guinea.

“But in the last 10,000 years we have had unprecedented stability in sea levels, with fluctuations of less than one metre.”

Professor Saenger sees no likelihood of the Antarctic ice cap melting and said the rapid rate in the melting of the Arctic ice was due more to the fact that this was floating sea ice rather than ice seated on solid rock, as in the Antarctic.

In ‘retirement’ Professor Saenger, who has been honoured by the University with the title Emeritus Professor, will continue his involvement with academia as an occasional guest lecturer as well as continuing to supervise his PhD students. He is also looking forward to doing environmental consulting work, continuing his research and writing another book.

“And when I am not doing that, I will be grey nomading,” he said.

Photo: Professor Peter Saenger, world expert on mangrove research and coastal management, has retired from Southern Cross University.