The Planet

In this area of research, we have many scientists dedicated to discovering and understanding how our planet works as a system, how all of its ecosystems and species formed and continue to evolve, how our planet relates to the universe around us, how human behaviour affects it, and how to protect it.

A particular strength is our research into climate change, environmental policy and natural resource management, with many of our academics providing solutions and advice to government, industry and not for profit organisations.

The research topics of some of our most eminent scientists in this area are detailed below.

  Research Highlights Flipbook



Extra-Solar Planets

 Professor Chris Tinney

Astronomers are rewriting the textbooks with their discovery of extra-solar planets, or exoplanets.

Extra-solar planets, or exoplanets, are planets that are orbiting other Sun-like stars. Exoplanetary science is a relatively new area of research, having only existed for around 20 years. However, Professor Chris Tinney, based within the UNSW Department of Astrophysics, has been involved since its inception. Professor Tinney and his group are pursuing new technologies for searching for exoplanets, including the development of a revised spectrograph for the Anglo-Australian telescope where the group does most of its observing.


Big Ecology

 Professor Angela Moles

Ecologist Angela Moles continues to overturn theories about the world’s plant life.

Collaborating with 50 scientists,  Moles set out to develop a new approach to ecology by studying global patterns in how plants grow and reproduce. Her ambitious assignment ‘The World Herbivory Project’ saw her travel to 75 different ecosystems around the world in just two years. Until Associate Professor Moles set to work on her assignment, there was very little known about global patterns in plant traits, with ecologists traditionally collecting data on a specific ecosystem. For her efforts, Professor Moles was awarded the 2011 Eureka Prize for Outstanding Young Researcher and the 2013 Prime Minister's Prize for Science.


Climate Change

 Professor Andy Pitman  and  Professor Matthew England

Modelling and evaluating the impact of climate change on land and water is important to enhance our understanding. 

ARC Laureate Fellow, Professor England’s main research activities reside in large-scale physical oceanography, ocean modelling, ocean-atmosphere dynamics and climate variability. He studies what controls ocean currents and how these currents affect climate variability on time-scales of seasons to centuries.
Director for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science, Professor Pitman has interests in terrestrial processes in global and regional climate modelling, model evaluation, and earth systems approaches to understanding climate change.


Evolutionary Biology

 Professor Rob Brooks

Investigating sexual attraction offers surprising insights into the perfect body.

Professor Brooks combines a background in evolutionary biology with interests in economics and psychology to look at how mating patterns and behaviours are affected by the environment, and the consequences for populations. With funding from an Australian Research Council Discovery Grant, he is focused on human beings and seeks to determine the optimum attractive physical characteristics. His work also extends to the study of food and nutrition and how it shapes both bodies and reproductive health. 


The laws of nature

 Professor John Webb

Do the laws of Nature vary in space or time?  The answer is fundamental to our understanding of fundamental physics and cosmology.

Professor John Webb and his team are focused on the boundary between fundamental physics and astronomy, studying how the universe has evolved over the 14 billion years since its birth.  If the basic laws of physics have changed, with either location or time, why?  If they have not, what fundamental property of the universe holds the laws constant? These questions underpin our basic understanding of physics and their answers will provide the next step in understanding space, time, and the origin and evolution of the universe.  Using the world’s best observatories, the first hints have emerged that one of the 4 fundamental forces, electromagnetism, varies slightly across the universe.  If so, existing theories will need radical overhaul.  Whether confirmed or not, the new measurements provide the best constraints yet on unification theories of physics, an ultimate “theory of everything”.



Environmental Science

 Professor Richard Kingsford

Letting our rivers run may deliver a more sustainable future for the environment.

Environmental scientist Professor Richard Kingsford, Director of the Australian Wetlands and Rivers Centre of the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, is working to understand the threats to Australia’s river systems and thus predict the most likely scenarios over the next 50 to 100 years so that management of regulated rivers is improved. “My research team is advising on the best way to manage water systems for the environment”, he says. Since 1986, Professor Kingsford has been involved in conducting aerial surveys of 2000 wetlands across a third of Australia each year.


Marine Ecology

 Professor Emma Johnston

Ecotoxicologist Emma Johnston is hopeful about the health of Sydney’s marine systems, but adds that there is still much work to be done.

Completing her PhD on the impacts of copper on marine systems (in 2002), Professor Johnston has since broadened her focus from a single contaminant to a range of detrimental human impacts on marine and estuarine environments. One area under close scrutiny is that of marine bioinvasions, or the epidemic spread of non-native species, due to human disturbance. “It’s about finding ways to make sure the underwater organisms, the algae, the invertebrates, the fish, even the microbes can survive in this very modified system,” she says.


Eco Statistics

 Associate Professor David Warton

A combination of mathematics and biology is helping to make sense of how individual species fit within ecological communities.

David and his team of ecological statisticians are researching the development of new methodologies for data analysis in ecological research. The group’s work in quantifying ecological communities considers the whole collection or community of a species, rather than an individual species. Another Eco-Stats project examines grassland invertebrate species across Eastern Australia and how they respond to climate and other environmental factors.  Eco-Stats have also developed software for displaying, modelling and analysing multivariate abundance data in community ecology.


Natural Hazards

 Professor James Goff

Determining the extent of previous disasters is a critical step in preparing for tsunamis in the future.

Professor James Goff, who co-directs the Australia-Pacific Tsunami Research Centre and Natural Hazards Research Laboratory (ATRC-NHRL), and his team are interested in all aspects of tsunamis – hazard, risk and vulnerability assessment, disaster and emergency management. Coupling together human and environmental factors, researchers employ geology, archaeology and anthropology techniques to uncover the history of tsunamis in the Pacific region - in order to better prepare for the future. As for what lies ahead, Professor Goff cannot say when, where or how, but imagines the next big event will be somewhere in the Pacific.