Home Ice bergs Nicole Webster heading Australia’s Antarctic Division as Chief Scientist

Nicole Webster heading Australia’s Antarctic Division as Chief Scientist

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Scuba diving around a dead coral reef off the coast of Queensland was the motivation Australia’s newest chief scientist in the Antarctic Division needed to move south, in a bid to better understand the impact of climate change on marine environments.

Marine scientist Nicole Webster thought she had the wrong GPS coordinates when she went diving on the Great Barrier Reef to inspect a study site she had visited several times before.

“It was actually just a field of coral rubble,” said Professor Webster.

After rechecking her position, she realized she was in the right place but the reef was dead.

“Despite our very next dive just 500m away on a relatively healthy coral reef, it still had this very visceral effect on me,” she said.

“It just solidified my thinking… this growing sense of urgency to use my skills to lead hard-hitting science that can actually help us understand the challenges we face in the face of climate change.”

After more than 20 years in coral reef science, the experience prompted her to apply for a position with the Australian Antarctic Division.

She got the job.

Professor Webster said that below icebergs, the marine life in Antarctic waters is like a tropical coral reef.(

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Australian Antarctic Division Director Kim Ellis in an office.
AAD Director Kim Ellis hopes Professor Webster’s appointment will result in greater gender equity for the organization.(

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But making a bigger difference is exactly what she hopes to do once she takes office in the division.

Her boss, director Kim Ellis, is convinced she can.

“She’s looking at our science to see, are we delivering the right science? Are we delivering it the right way? And are we communicating this science well to the general public but especially to government?” he said.

Climate change, a challenge

Professor Webster said one of the great challenges of Antarctic science is the vulnerability of ice shelves to collapse due to warming oceans and the atmosphere.

“Being able to do the science that can reliably estimate the kind of sea level rise we’re going to experience by 2100 actually allows us to be able to put adaptation measures in place as humans. to be able to cope with the rise in sea level attributed to climate change, ”she said.

While Professor Webster has spent most of her career diving in tropical waters, she has experienced the icy depths of Antarctica.

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Her research into the impacts humans have on microbes and sea sponges near Antarctic stations has immersed her in minus-30 degrees Celsius waters.

“When you go down to Antarctica, you basically have to drill a 3-meter hole in the ice,” she said.

“We had to use a groomer to shovel almost an area of ​​snow the size of a football field to let enough light through the ice hole.

“You basically immerse yourself in an ice slurry to descend through this 3 meter ice hole.”

She said the marine life in Antarctic waters is comparable to a tropical coral reef.

“You have a light filter that just illuminates the most colorful and complex life forms,” Professor Webster said.

“There are sponge gardens, spider crabs, echinoderms and fish.”

But moving to the position of Chief Scientist will inevitably mean less time in the water and more time at a desk.

A female leader to help balance the sexes

Professor Webster is the second woman to hold the post in the Australian Antarctic Division.

It is hoped that her appointment will contribute to greater gender equity within the organization.

“In our scientific fields … there is a good diversity, we just don’t have women in leadership positions,” said Mr Ellis.

“I am extremely passionate about equity and diversity in general and have spent my life trying to help women scientists by mentoring an incredibly talented group of early career researchers,” said Professor Webster.

Two people are sitting on the ice in Antarctica
Professor Webster says Antarctica and the Great Barrier Reef are undergoing dramatic changes due to warming oceans.(

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With a lot of work ahead, Professor Webster admits that she never planned to become a scientist.

Growing up, she dreamed of becoming an author.

But taking biology in the last year of school changed her mind and gave her a glimpse into an underwater world that she still passionates about.

After more than two decades in the tropics, she feels well prepared to lead Antarctic science.

“They are opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of latitude, but in reality they are both experiencing dramatic impacts from warming oceans and climate change in general.”