Pioneering earth scientist wins Australian Prime Minister’s Prize for Science

Kurt Lambeck, emeritus professor at the Australian National University (ANU), has spent decades studying planet Earth. Some of his earliest work in the 1960s aided in the accurate planning of space missions. He studied the Earth’s gravity field and his results transformed previous views of terrestrial gravity, the global shape of the Earth and its internal structure. 

He has studied the changes brought about by glacial cycles and how they affected sea levels, ice caps, and the inner planet. His findings revolutionised geoscience concepts.

For transforming our understanding of our living planet, Lambeck has received the 2018 $250,000 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science. 

Now in their 18th year, the awards were presented on October 17 at a formal dinner in the Great Hall of Parliament House, Canberra, by Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. The prizes comprise seven categories and are the country’s most highly regarded awards for achievements by Australians in science research, innovation and teaching.

Lambeck was born in Utrecht, the Netherlands, in 1941. He has been an Australian citizen since 1956. Along with a distinguished international career, from 1977 to 2007 he was a professor of geophysics at the ANU. 

He earned a bachelor degree in surveying from the University of NSW and then a PhD at Oxford University, UK, focussed on space geodesy – the science of accurately measuring and understanding the Earth’s geometric shape, orientation in space, and gravity field. Much of his study involved analysing data received from satellites orbiting the planet.

Lambeck found that the Earth’s gravity field was much more complex than previously thought, a discovery that proved crucial as humankind progressed into outer space. 

But he also saw that changes in the planet’s gravity field were directly related to plate tectonics, the movements of continents on the Earth’s surface.

Today’s highly accurate global positioning systems build on his work.

In Australia, Lambeck has guided the development of a comprehensive geodetic monitoring system consisting of about 100 GPS stations, radio telescopes, and laser tracking systems. The AuScope network, established with the support of the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, enables the tracking of locations with sub-centimetre accuracy across the country.

“Today we can see the breathing of the Australian continent on a daily basis,” he says. 

“We can watch the land rise and fall with the tides and observe the straining of the old continent as it collides with South-East Asia. We can detect subtle variations in gravity that could indicate not only deep mineral deposits but also changes in groundwater through time.”

Changing sea levels have had a huge impact on the rise and fall of civilisations. Lambeck is now working with archaeologists in Europe and using precise carbon dating to piece together a more accurate understanding of past sea levels. 

By measuring change over millions of years, thousands of years, and from day to day, he and his colleagues can generate the best possible predictions of future sea levels to aid in planning for a changing future.

“The Earth is remarkable,” he says. “It has this wonderful record of its history going back to almost its very beginning. Almost everywhere you look, you learn something new about what’s been going on in our planet. It’s a constant journey of discovery.”

Lambeck, a recipient of the Order of Australia, along with many notable international awards, was president of the Australian Academy of Science from 2006 to 2010. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of London and the Royal Society of New South Wales. He is a member of the French Academy of Science, the US National Academy of Science, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. A few of his other achievements include receiving the Wollaston Medal, recognising lifetime achievements and service, from the Geological Society of London; and the Matthew Flinders Medal and Lecture from the Australian Academy of Science.

He has published two books and more than 250 papers on subjects ranging from geophysics and geology to celestial mechanics environmental science.

Included in his published works are many papers and articles on the science of climate change. 

In a 2010 newspaper article, Lambeck wrote: “Understanding what drives climate, and predicting how it may change under a combination of natural and anthropogenic forcing, is possibly one of the most challenging problems for the science community. No single scientist or group of scientists can successfully claim to understand all, free of all doubt. 

“It becomes even more of a challenge for the wider public to understand the science and, in the face of uncertainties, to be able to make informed decisions about how to respond. That challenge becomes even more difficult in the face of seemingly conflicting messages about the science.

“It is therefore important for scientists to take stock periodically and focus on the key scientific questions, on what the consequences are of specific uncertainties, and on what is required to resolve remaining uncertainties.

“To improve our understanding, extensive research and rigorous debate must continue among scientists. Importantly, communicating this research to the wider public must be effective.

“Scientists have the responsibility of providing the best evidence to help policy makers reach conclusions that are founded in science, that are based on the best current understanding.”

In 2012 the International Balzan Foundation, a Swiss-Italian organisation promoting culture and science, singled out Lambeck for its annual prize for solid earth sciences. 

“His results revolutionised concepts in the geosciences crucial to our understanding of the solid Earth,” the judges wrote.

“Kurt Lambeck’s work has always combined observations from different disciplines, such as geodesy, geology, geophysics, oceanography and paleoclimatology, which makes him a truly multidisciplinary thinker. He has influenced research in many areas of the Earth sciences.” 

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