Sobel’s Sabbatical Report: “Our Year in Oz”

A couple of years ago, during a visit to some colleagues at a University in another part of the country, I was having dinner with several of them and the subject of sabbaticals came up. One was a very highly regarded professor in his sixties who had started his faculty career in his twenties and had taken many sabbaticals, all of them in different faraway places, most of them accompanied by his family.  After he told a few of his stories someone said “you know, these days not many people can take that kind of old-fashioned sabbatical any more;  everyone’s spouse has a job they can’t leave, or their kids have some important commitments, or something, and a lot of people just stay home.” I hadn’t had a sabbatical yet but was soon due for one. I resolved to do it right.

My wife managed to get a year’s leave from her job, and in August 2007 we went with our two boys (then 6 and 9, now 7 and 10) to Melbourne, Australia for a full year’s sabbatical. We lived in the southeast near the beach, close to the neighborhood of St. Kilda, which among other things has an amusement park modeled on Coney Island. It was a pleasant half-hour tram ride from there to my “job” downtown, as a visiting scientist at the Bureau of Meteorology.

I was in the Bureau’s basic research arm, which has a small but strong group doing tropical weather and climate research, my area. My main occupation was the research projects I’d brought with me.  After 7 or so years (I came to Columbia in January 2000) of being mostly an advisor, teacher, editor, and fund-raiser, I was determined to do some real research myself - writing the code, making the plots, the whole thing. But I wanted to learn from my Australian colleagues, so I also spent a lot of time talking to them. I began a few collaborations, one or two of which will lead to co-authored journal articles.

I learned a lot about the local weather and climate, more as an interested spectator than out of any research imperative. Big things, if not necessarily good things, are happening down there. Nearly every part of Australia with significant population has been in a drought for the last decade or so. The drought has had impacts that nearly every citizen feels directly, from higher food prices to restrictions on household water use in the large cities that house most of the population (Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Canberra). Australia is a dry country under normal conditions, and ten-year droughts like this have happened a few times since the British arrived two centuries ago, but this is at least the worst one since World War II.  

Is global warming responsible to some extent for this particular drought?  If not, the drought will eventually end, as they all have in the past. If so, maybe not. The short answer is we don’t really know, but probably some of the drought is natural and some of it is anthropogenic. The rainfall decrease may be partly or even completely natural, but because it is hotter than in the past (at least partly due to global warming), more of the water in the soil evaporates than in the past, which leads to less water in streams and reservoirs per unit rainfall.

Regardless of what the real answer may be, the drought has led to an intense awareness of climate and water issues throughout Australia. It was my impression that the Australian press covers these issues more than ours does here in the US, and that people talk about them more. It is the conventional wisdom, supported by polls, that climate change played a major role in the Australian federal election which took place November 2007. The right-of-center Liberal/National coalition led by John Howard was thrown out, in favor of the left-of-center Labor Party led by Kevin Rudd. Rudd had used Howard’s vaguely skeptical, essentially passive, rather Bush-like stance on climate to paint his opponent as clueless and out of touch, “yesterday’s man”. Shortly after being sworn in, Rudd fulfilled his campaign promise to sign the Kyoto protocol. Whether this drought is caused by global warming or not, it has helped Australians visualize what a permanently changed climate might look like for them, making the issue much less abstract.

We did a lot of traveling. For an American, Australia is not very foreign or exotic culturally, except for the traces of Aboriginal culture that remain (and maybe Aussie rules football). But it is another world geographically, with landscapes, plants and animals different from anything in the USA.  We saw as much of it as we could. Our kids were just the right ages to appreciate the kangaroos, koalas, wombats, possums, crocodiles, weird birds, snakes… my older boy, Eli, became fascinated and obsessed with them to the point that his friends at school called him “Wombat kid”.  He and my wife learned how to surf and she learned how to scuba dive.  My younger boy, Sam, learned how to read while we were there, and how to speak Australian like a native (almost).

I didn’t really acquire any skills other than how to say the word “mate” with a straight face (that took about 9 months) and how to order my coffee (“long black”). I didn’t write a book either. That’s ok.  t was a real sabbatical: a rest, an escape from the regular routines, time to think, a new environment to jar one’s thoughts out of their ruts, a very different time zone. I highly recommend it.


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