Fulbright Scholarship takes river scientist to the Mississippi

Published 03 May 2012

Professor Martin Thoms is hoping that, after five months’ research on the banks of the Mississippi as a Fulbright Senior Scholar, he’ll return home with knowledge that will further his already-significant contribution to the management and protection of Australia’s rivers.

Professor Thoms (pictured here), Head of Geography at the University of New England and an independent scientific auditor for the Murray Darling Basin Authority, will be working at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Mississippi River Monitoring Field Station at La Crosse in Wisconsin and at the nearby Winona State University. He is one of only two Australian recipients of Fulbright Senior Scholarships in 2012.

His aim is to develop skills in the use of new technologies that will help Australian scientists to document the resilience of our rivers in response to major environmental disturbances (such as dam building and climate change) in the past, and thus assess their current and future capacity for resilience.

The cutting-edge technologies employed in these investigations include the use of radioactive isotopes in examining organic deposits in a river system in order to reconstruct the “food web” within that system at different periods in the past as well as in the present.

“The complexity of the food web – a picture of who’s eating what – is an indication of the health of the system,” Professor Thoms explained. “The more complex the food web, the healthier it is. Using these techniques we can build up a time line of the complexity and integrity of riverine landscapes, and correlate that with known changes in climate, land use, and river management.

“Our research group at UNE is in the midst of doing this for the Murray Darling Basin and other large river systems. We’ve been working with our American colleagues, and have been able to record the impact of disturbances such as dam building. And these new technologies will extend the boundaries of our work.”

His interdisciplinary research group is conducting projects on the Macintyre River, the Narran Wetlands, and the Darling and Lower Murrumbidgee Rivers, as well as reconstructing past food webs in the Murray Darling Basin. Two of his research students will be joining him in Wisconsin, and he’s hoping that his Fulbright Scholarship will strengthen and extend the links he has already established with the U.S. Geological Survey and Winona State University. “They’re really interested in how we at UNE are able to get our science out there and used on the ground,” he said, “and how they could build similar collaborative relationships with their own communities.”

Professor Thoms, who is President Elect of the International Society for River Science, will leave Armidale for North America at the beginning of June. He will take up the Fulbright Scholarship at the end of that month after co-hosting a conference at Banff, in Canada, about the impact of wildfires on river ecosystems, and working with scientists at the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station.

While excited at the prospect of a laboratory and research vessel of his own on the Mississippi for five months, he sees the Fulbright Scholarship as an opportunity for the advancement of Australian river science in general – an interdisciplinary science that would be aimed at the management not only of rivers themselves, but also of their surrounding landscapes.