Staff cutbacks and a shift in focus threaten climate work done at the Cape Grim research station in Tasmania, Australia. Credit CSIRO
SYDNEY, Australia — Perched on a wild, windy promontory on the rugged tip of northwestern Tasmania, the tiny Cape Grim research station has been measuring airborne greenhouse gases since 1976.
It is one of a handful of such stations in the world, and because the wind that reaches it has traveled more than 6,600 miles across the southern oceans, uncontaminated by cities or factories, the measurements are considered a baseline for tracking changes in the earth’s atmosphere.
Now a decision by Australia’s science agency to lay off 350 researchers and shift the organization’s focus to more commercial enterprise threatens not only the work done at the station but also climate studies around the globe.
Scientists worldwide have protested the shift, saying the loss of the Australian data — from both Cape Grim and the agency’s role in a vital ocean-monitoring program called Argo — could impair their ability to predict severe regional weather and help people prepare for extreme floods, drought, bushfires and cyclones.
“This, for me, is such a big shock,” said Ronald G. Prinn, director of the Center for Global Change Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “To think that you could stop measurements or throw out the people, that doesn’t make any sense to me and to many, many other people around the world.”
About 3,000 scientists from more than 60 countries have signed a petition calling the cuts “devastating” and saying that research stations like Cape Grim are “critical and irreplaceable” to global climate science.
The Australian agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, or Csiro, has played down the impact, noting that it is not closing the two programs, but shifting missions. The move, from a focus on the causes of climate change to developing profitable products to cope with its consequences, follows the 2014 appointment as agency director of Larry Marshall, a former technology entrepreneur and venture capitalist in Silicon Valley.
Australia’s climate research has helped “prove global climate change,” Dr. Marshall said in an email to the agency’s staff this month. “That question has been answered and the new question is what do we do about it and how do we find solutions for the climate we will be living with.”