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Our Research

The TropWATER research portfolio covers from freshwater to coastal marine waters, from biological communities to water quality and physical process, as well as socio-economic systems underpinning our management of natural resources. In order to demonstrate the diverse research areas of the Centre, these are aligned into eight research themes.

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Theme 1 - Freshwater Ecology

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Theme leader - Professor Damien Burrows

Our freshwater ecology and management work is largely based in northern Australia. Across most of northern Australia, the dominant land uses are grazing and mining so these, along with riparian weed and fire management, are strong elements of our work program. Along the more developed north-east coast of Australia, urban areas and intensive agriculture are major areas of focus for us. Most of Australia’s runoff occurs in the tropical north, yet apart from parts of the north-east coast, most rivers here are unregulated and levels of development are generally low. Thus there is significant potential for further development in these relatively remote and undeveloped catchments. We are actively studying freshwater ecosystems in these areas to understand their ecology and underpin potential future development scenarios. Much of our work has a very applied focus and thus we work closely with community, industry and government on solving actual management issues in our region. This results in a broad spectrum of projects being undertaken. In addition to our research, we work actively to inform public policy, influence public and corporate environmental behaviour and advise a range of environmental decision makers. To this end, we have made a significant impact upon the understanding and management of northern Australian freshwater ecosystems. Read more.

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Theme 2 - Coastal and Estuarine Ecology

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Theme leader - Professor Marcus Sheaves

Tropical estuaries and coastal ecosystems are among the most valuable ecosystems on the planet. Their mangrove forests, seagrass beds and tidal wetlands are capture and store more carbon per hectare than any other habitat, and their nutrient rich shallow waters provide nursery grounds and feeding areas for a variety of fish, invertebrates, birds, and marine mammals and reptiles. However, the coasts adjacent to these habitats are the focus of intense human activity, making coastal and estuarine habitats the most heavily impacted of all marine habitats. They are also the places most directly impacted by sea level rise, one of the major consequences of climate change. Researchers in TropWATERs Coastal and Estuarine Ecology Theme focus on understanding (i) these ecosystems, their component species, the ecological processes that sustain them, (ii) the impacts occurring to these ecosystems, species and components, and (iii) how their values can be optimised in the face of all the pressures they face. Read more.

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Theme 3 – Seagrass Ecology

Seagrass meadows are an important source of food for marine herbivores.

Theme leader - Dr Rob Coles

TropWATER’s Seagrass Ecology Group is a world renowned group focusing on tropical seagrass ecosystems. In the 1980s the group pioneered tropical seagrass mapping methods and identified much of the known distribution of coastal and deepwater seagrasses in tropical Australia. Since that early work the group has maintained and developed an extensive research, assessment and monitoring program on tropical seagrass ecology (prior to 2013 based at the Queensland Department of Agriculture, Fisheries & Forestry). The group specialises in tropical research with a specific interest in the Indo Pacific region but also manages projects that extend globally. Read more.

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Theme 4 – Catchment to Reef Processes

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Theme leader – Jon Brodie

The Catchment to Reef Processes Research Group is one of Australia’s leading research groups in the study of environmental issues along the ‘catchment to reef continuum’, from the headwaters of the GBR catchments to the outer reef. Research undertaken by the group includes tracing the sources of pollutants (sediments, nutrients and pesticides) from different land uses (i.e. cattle grazing, sugar cane, horticulture and urban) within catchments, the transport and dispersal of land-based pollutants in coastal and marine environments, the environmental, social and economic impacts of plastic pollution, the quantification of pollutant loads to the GBR lagoon from end-of-catchment monitoring and coral core proxy records, the exposure and risk of land-based pollutants to coastal wetland, mangrove, seagrass and coral reef ecosystem and the modeling of ecohydrological and oceanographic processes in estuaries and the GBR. Read more.

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Theme 5 - Water Quality and Contaminants

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Theme leader – Dr Bithin Datta

Water quality along with quantity will certainly remain one of critical issues to be dealt with engineers and scientists in the coming years. In tropical regions of the world these issues are more critical, as some of the chemical, geochemical, and biological processes are accentuated in warm climates. While hydrologists have addressed the water quantity aspects, its prediction, monitoring and modeling, a more comprehensive approach is required to integrate often conflicting objectives of ensuring water availability in terms of quality and quality. Water resources systems approach emerged and flourished as the acute necessity of combining the societal demands for water, along with preservation of the environment, ecology, and satisfying requirements welfare economics became evident. This required a combination of Water Resources Engineering, Economics, Sociology, Ecology, and Environmental Science.  Read more.

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      Theme 6 - Oceanography

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      Theme leader – Professor Peter Ridd

      The physical oceanography is one of the primary factors that affect the ecosystems of coastal areas, and how these ecosystems may be affected by coastal development or changes in the input of sediment and nutrients from the land. The tides and currents are primary drivers for the transport of fish and coral larvae as well as other interesting organisms such as Crown of Thorns Starfish. Waves dominate the processes of resuspension and deposition of sediment around coral reefs, seagrass beds and other coastal settings. One of the primary focuses of this theme is the affect of sediment and nutrients on coral reefs in both natural conditions and also when dredging is occurring. Corals and seagrasses may be smothered by sediment or killed by prolonged reduction of light due to resuspended sediment or the proliferation of organic material caused by nutrient enrichment. This topic has become a major focus on the northern Australian coast with the recent considerable expansion of port facilities. Measurement of physical parameters is central to oceanography and we have a group dedicated to developing new instrumentation to support our work. This work has included the development of an inexpensive current meter, satellite tracked drifters for measuring current and water turbidity in rivers and the sea, and sediment deposition sensors. 

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      Theme 7 - Hydrology

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      Theme leader – Dr Jim Wallace

      Our hydrological research focuses on the interactions between river flow and aquatic ecology; providing critical knowledge required for the management and sustainable use of surface and groundwater water resources. Our team specialises in quantifying the effects of high wet season (flood) and low dry season river flows on aquatic ecosystems, and detecting surface-groundwater interactions using remote sensing. We also have expertise in rainforest hydrology, with an emphasis on understanding how the canopy water balance controls ecological conditions and the potential impacts of climate change. Read more.

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      Theme 8 - Socio-economic Systems and Natural Resource Management

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      Theme leader – Professor Natalie Stoeckl

      Throughout the world, most of the threats to aquatic and coastal ecosystems are anthropogenic – caused by, for example, the overuse of surface and groundwater, the pollution of fresh and saltwater, resource extraction, habitat alteration etc. Recognising the central role that humans play, researchers involved in this theme focus on the interactions between people and aquatic systems, looking for ways of influencing and/or managing those systems for a sustainable future. Geographically, our research focuses on northern Australia, South-east Asia and the Pacific. Working closely with local communities, we combine insights from those ‘on the ground’ with insights from a variety of western-science disciplines to learn more about the way in which humans affect, and are affected by, each other and their environment.

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