People's Choice Awards
Andrew reads iced air bubbles to explain climate change
Dr Andrew Smith was nicknamed "the professor" and his favourite presents as a kid were chemistry sets, lots of them. Luckily for us, he didn't rebel and become a rock star or a professional surfer. He followed his passion for science and has found a way to help us to better understand climate change.
"I was always inclined towards science from even pre-school days. My kindergarten teacher recognised this and nick-named me ‘the professor'. At first I was interested in chemistry, then more in electronics, both of which were hobbies when I was young," Andrew said.
"At high school I enjoyed chemistry, physics and mathematics. During university I focused on physics. I never really had to make a decision about my career, it was always inevitable somehow."
Andrew uses Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) to analyse samples of trapped air from polar ice sheets to study the origin of the potent greenhouse gas, methane, in the Earth's atmosphere. Recently, he and his team completed analysis of air samples over 12,000 years old to learn what caused the rise in atmospheric methane at that time. Andrew discovered a way to measure radiocarbon (14C), which allowed the team to work out where the extra methane in the air at that time came from.
"I have discovered a way to measure very small carbon samples for radiocarbon (14C) for studying the origin of past methane. Thanks to that, we have been able to show that during a period of rapid warming about 12,000 years ago, the extra methane we found in the ice cores came from wetlands that increased in size, not from ice-like material called methane clathrate found in the Earth's oceans and permafrost regions."
This is good news as our Earth warms up, because it suggests that the massive amount of methane locked up as clathrate remained stable 12,000 years ago and probably will remain so again. Andrew is interested in methane, because, like carbon dioxide, it has an important role in global climate change.
"We need to understand the sources that contributed to the rise in methane in the past atmosphere so we can better forecast today's methane emissions and their effect on the Earth's climate.
"The ice core record shows that greenhouse gases have never been as high as they are now over the last 850,000 years and there is no doubt that this is due to mankind. We are conducting an unprecedented and dangerous experiment with the Earth's atmosphere and it would be a really great idea to limit our emissions.
"If everyone was individually conscious of their environmental footprint then collectively we could make a huge change, quite easily.
Andrew entered the DECC Eureka Prize for Innovative Solutions to Climate Change.
Dr Andrew Smith
Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), NSW