Australia – The 2003 bushfires devastated Canberra but the tragedy also helped to redefine the future of the renowned Mount Stromlo Observatory.
The inferno took four lives and devastated more than 500 homes. It left the iconic site atop Mount Stromlo with nothing but facades and an administration building still standing.
But the fire also heralded a new era of space investigation.
It’s been 10 years since the site officially rose from the ashes of the blaze, and the story of its rebirth is one of epic proportions.
The iconic Commonwealth Solar Observatory building was gutted after the fire, and the books on its library shelves were “stacked columns of ash sandwiched between carbonised covers”.
The 1920s heritage building was designed by the same architect that designed Old Parliament House.
It was the first of the fire-affected areas to be reopened four years after the bushfires. It marked the rejuvenation of the site, and was a major milestone in the observatory’s recovery.
Then-director of the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics Penny Sackett recalled visiting Stromlo the day after the fires tore through.
“It was a dismal sight,” she said.
“Power lines and kangaroo carcasses lay along the roadside as I drove up through the grey, smoking landscape. Telescopes lay in ruins, their aluminium domes had melted, their glass mirrors and lenses were shattered.”
She recalled seeing the newly-minted spectrometer, technology conceived and built by the ANU’s astronomers and engineers, “breached and devastated by the intense heat”.
That same day, a meeting was held to discuss the damage and chart a course of action. She said the staff and students were determined to return to the site.
“Central to the decade-long rebuilt process were the three priceless Stromlo assets that the fire did not touch – its people, its reputation and its spirit.”
Professor Sackett said she saw the fires as an opportunity to shape the future of the research school.
“The process was challenging to us all, but also gave us a direct way to heal the deep wounds of devastation. We were building the foundations of the next 80 years of Stromlo’s future, not just a carbon copy of its 80-year old historic facilities.”
Professor Sackett, who went on to become Australia’s chief scientist, said the rebirth of Stromlo stands out as the most rewarding time of her whole career.
Australian National University’s then vice-chancellor Ian Chubb agreed with the sentiment.
Professor Chubb, who also held Australia’s chief scientist position, said the process of rebuilding the observatory stood out as one of his most memorable achievements.
“I have never lived through a day like that,” Professor Chubb said of the fires.
“The sky was basically orange, it was dark in the middle of the day, and there was an orange glow.
“Tragically people lost their lives. It was a devastating period.”
At the time, Professor Chubb was living at the ANU’s residence on campus. He recalled the imminent threat of the blaze from the fire burning at Black Mountain.
Professor Chubb said he was regularly touring the campus on the day to monitor the situation. He remembers the spot, near the old hospital, where he looked up to see Mount Stromlo on fire.
“You could watch this extraordinary scene in the Stromlo direction. In many ways, I remember that like it was yesterday.”
Despite the threat, only embers reached the campus. It was a different scenario at Mount Stromlo.
Professor Chubb said the impact of the fire was dramatic.
“John Howard was the Prime Minister at the time and he came up very soon after the bushfires. He got out of his car and he looked at me and said, ‘I have never seen anything like this’. It was such utter devastation, I don’t know if anybody who ever saw it could forget it.”
Professor Chubb said he could have never imagined that more than $80 million of the university’s infrastructure would be wiped out in one afternoon.
“Nothing can prepare you for that,” he said.
“All in all it was a very emotional time and we could have been dispirited by it, but we were determined very early on to rebuild Stromlo.”
He said the decision to rebuild on the mountain instead of bringing it back to the campus was “agreed to for all sorts of reasons”.
The site, which was affected by the expansion of Canberra, was being impacted by ambient light so a new direction was taken.
When the Commonwealth Solar Observatory reopened on July 5, 2007, Professor Chubb said it was a tremendous emotional milestone.
“Everybody wanted it to be rebuilt. I’m very pleased with what’s been achieved. It’s a facility that the university and Australia can really be extremely proud to have.”
On the list of the observatory’s achievements since the reopening is the addition of a Nobel Prize.
The international accolade was awarded to Professor Brian Schmidt, the current ANU vice-chancellor, in 2011.
Two replicas of the prize hold pride of place in the Commonwealth Solar Observatory.
“If you’re going to do great things, you need to have a place to do them,” Professor Schmidt said.
“You need to have a place that provides the circumstance and I would also say the gravitas to get people committed to doing the hard work that underpins scientific research.”
He said the Commonwealth Solar Observatory was an inspiring place to work. It’s now situated next to the Advanced Instrumentation Technology Centre on the mountain.
ANU director of the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics Matthew Colless said lessons were learnt for observatories worldwide from the destruction that occurred at Stromlo in 2003.
It helped when ANU’s Siding Springs Observatory was hit by a major fire in 2013, just a week after Professor Colless started as director of the research school.
“It was a baptism of fire in the most literal possible sense,” he said.
“I was very fortunate in that there were lessons learnt in the Stromlo fire that had been implemented at Siding Springs, so the damage was much less.”
The telescopes were saved, but the astronomers lodge was lost. Coincidentally, the “splendid new lodge” was reopened last Friday.
ANU astrophysicist Brad Tucker said nobody would have expected the observatory to be doing what it was now when he arrived at Mount Stromlo at the end of 2007.
He said without the change of direction, the search for Planet 9 would never have been possible.
“The fires allowed Stromlo to be cutting edge.”
“They were a chance to create new equipment and put it on the Siding Springs site, a much better site that we control remotely from here.
“I don’t think anyone would have thought in January 2003 that 14 years later we’d have a Nobel Prize, that we’d be using lasers to zap space junk and we’d be launching satellites.”
The forest fire, which started on the night of June 24 and still smoldering in Spain’s southwestern region of Huelva, burned a total of 8,486 hectares, the Andalusian Regional Government said on Wednesday. Environmental spokesman for Andalusia, Jose Fiscal, confirmed the damage on his Twitter account. Over 2,000 people had had to be evacuated from hotels and campsites on the perimeter of the fire, he said. He added that the perimeter established around the fire was actually 10,900 hectares, but within that perimeter, 2,414 hectares of woodland were still intact. The fire damaged two protected areas: 6,761 hectares of Donana National Park, which has UNESCO protected status and is home to around 400 different species such as the threatened Iberian Lynx and Iberian Eagle, and 17 hectares of Laguna de Palos y Madres Nature Park. The Andalusian government believed that had it not been for the work of fire fighters, who at the height of the blaze numbered around 500, the damage would have been far worse for the 43,225 hectares of woods and scrubland. According to the regional government, temperatures were around 40 degrees Celsius when the fire began, with a wind-speed of between 30 and 40 km per hour (km/h) and gusts of up to 90 km/h at night, which helped propagate the flames and made it impossible to use aircraft or helicopters to fight the fire. A total of 50 firemen remain in the zone to continue the work of damping down and to ensure there are no flare ups, while investigations continue into the cause of the blaze. Authorities have not ruled out a human cause. Read full text at: http://eng.belta.by/society/view/spanish-forest-fire-burns-over-8400-hectares-in-and-around-national-park-102857-2017/ If you use BelTAs materials, you must credit us with a hyperlink to eng.belta.by.Tropical peat swamp forests, which once occupied large swaths of Southeast Asia and other areas, provided a significant “sink” that helped remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But such forests have been disappearing fast due to clear-cutting and drainage projects making way for plantations. Now, research shows peatlands face another threat, as climate change alters rainfall patterns, potentially destroying even forested peatlands that remain undrained.
Read more at: https://phys.org/news/2017-06-peatlands-dwindling-losses.html#jCpTropical peat swamp forests, which once occupied large swaths of Southeast Asia and other areas, provided a significant “sink” that helped remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But such forests have been disappearing fast due to clear-cutting and drainage projects making way for plantations. Now, research shows peatlands face another threat, as climate change alters rainfall patterns, potentially destroying even forested peatlands that remain undrained.