What Can Australia Tell Us About Boston’s Climate Future? UMass Boston Prof Asks

January 09, 2013

Martha Scanlon


Associate Professor of Environmental, Earth, and Ocean Sciences Allen Gontz has traveled to beaches around the world, measuring the impact of rising sea levels on coastal environments. He’s been to Mexico, Africa, Canada, Antarctica, and Iceland, but none of these far-flung destinations has affected him like Australia.

“Throughout my travels around Australia, I have been to the world's largest living structure, the world's largest sand island, walked on landscapes that are millions of years old, stood on volcanoes, tromped through rainforests that date to the dinosaurs and stood in awe of the sculptive power of the ocean,” he said while traveling along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria.

On sabbatical from UMass Boston, Gontz is serving as a visiting fellow in geography at the University of Queensland. He is collaborating with Patrick Moss, UQ palynologist, to investigate environmental changes in both perched lake and coastal systems. By collecting data about past coastal landscapes and understanding the ecology of past climates, Gontz and his colleagues begin to better understand future environmental responses to climate and sea-level change.

One of Gontz’s research sites in Australia is on the island of North Stradbroke, which features 800-footsand dunes estimated to be over 460,000 years old. Flinders Beach on North Stradbroke Island will serve as the Australian counterpart to Gontz’s research on Plymouth Long Beach and the Boston Harbor Islands.

“What makes sea-level change comparisons of Massachusetts and Queensland over the past 12,000 years so intriguing is that while Massachusetts has seen a constant rise, Queensland has seen a rise, fall, and rise over the same time period,” he said. “The lessons from Australia’s landscapes link directly to my research in Massachusetts by acting as a coastal comparison site.”

Gontz’s Australian adventure was set in motion nearly three years ago, when severe flooding and erosion on Duxbury Beach uncovered ancient tree stumps. Gontz studied the stumps and the beach, and in March 2011 presented his research at the American Geophysical Union Chapman Conference on Climate Change, Past Landscapes and Societies in Santa Fe, N.M. It was there that he met Moss, who researches environmental change through pollen grains preserved in lakes and bogs. “We immediately saw a collaboration opportunity, and he invited me to come to Australia to partner with him, other faculty members at UQ, and research partners at Griffith University, Queensland University of Technology and University of Wollongong.”

Gontz was awarded the fellowship and a travel grant from University of Queensland, as well as funding from the Office of International and Transnational Affairs and the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs at UMass Boston. “Without their collective funding, my research and cultural experience in Australia would not have been possible.”

While this was his first visit to Australia, Gontz plans to return in the future, citing his sabbatical goal of developing professional relationships and lasting research collaborations. He has already submitted a grant to the Australian Research Council and has two more in the works, as well as a companion grant with the National Science Foundation. He will return to UMass Boston this spring to share his new perspective with students and colleagues.