Ever considered a career in environmental science?
We spoke to Chris Turney, professor of Earth Sciences at UNSW and Antarctic explorer, about a day in the life of an earth scientist. Chris recently published the book, Shackled, about when those days go wrong. Setting out to stormy seas in search of new data on the earth’s past, Chris and his crew found themselves stranded when their ship was surrounded by dense, unmoving sheets of ice.
Thankfully, most days aren’t fraught with danger. Read on to find out why Chris loves this creative, planet-saving career.
What’s your mission?
To improve our understanding of how climate and environmental changes are affecting our planet.
How did you get stuck into STEM?
My parents encouraged me to study across a range of subjects in both the sciences and arts. A lot of students at the time were specialising too much, too soon. Thankfully my parents made me see sense.
When I went to the University of East Anglia for my undergraduate degree, I chose an interdisciplinary subject: Environmental Science. It was a brilliantly creative atmosphere that encouraged staff and students to look at our planet as a whole, rather than just from one distinct specialisation. It set me up for life.
What’s one thing you wish people knew about your job?
A common assumption is that scientists spend their time in the laboratory cut off from society, but I spend most of my research time outside; talking to people and collecting new data.
Working from the poles to the tropics, I search the planet for geological, chemical, and biological records of past environmental change. I’m drilling polar ice sheets and glaciers, sinking cores into lake muds, boring living and buried trees, and searching the ocean floor for ancient deposits. By finding out what happened when and why, I want to help reduce the uncertainties surrounding climate projections and plan for the future.
What’s the coolest part of your job?
I’ve had the privilege to visit some of the most remote, extreme and isolated places on the planet, places off the beaten path where tourists just don’t go. It’s humbling to stand on a mountain peak and take in a view that perhaps no other human being has ever seen.
Many parts of Antarctica experience something called ‘blue sky precipitation’. It’s basically snowfall with no clouds, the result of a sharp temperature change overhead that causes the little moisture in the atmosphere to freeze and fall to the surface. This snow is called ‘diamond dust’ and sparkles in the sun. It was magical and like something out a movie.
What’s your best advice to future earth scientists?
When you’re choosing subjects to study at school don’t specialise to soon. You might think you know what you want to do but it’s amazing how things can change.
If you’re creative, like learning how our planet works and love travelling then this is the job for you.