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National Science Week – Interview with Professor Thomas Baumgartl

For National Science Week we interviewed a few of our board members, partners and researchers. Today we are showcasing one of our Project Leaders, Professor Thomas Baumgartl

Tell us about yourself.

I am an environmental scientist. I studied Geo-ecology at the University of Bayreuth, Germany and moved to Australia in 2004, where I joined the Centre for Mined Land Rehabilitation at the University of Queensland. My soil science and soil hydrology specialisation came into use in projects and research questions regarding the performance of covers for mine waste (like tailings and waste rock).

What inspired you to become a scientist?

Already in school, I was fascinated by nature, its diversity and the environment which society was continuously interfering with. It became clear to me that while individual components in nature were known or understood, everything was connected. In order to protect or lessen the damage to our environment, it was important to try to not only understand processes in nature but also to try to understand how they are linked and to quantify these processes. The more I learnt during my study at university, the more I realised that I wanted to be part of the ‘scene’ contributing to this learning process.

Tell us about your current position?

Since 2018 I have been located in Gippsland as a Professor of Environmental/Soil Science at Federation University Australia. With my research group, I explore opportunities to support the local coal-fired power stations in the Latrobe Valley with the task of finding long-term safe, stable, sustainable, non-polluting and socially acceptable solutions to mine closure and relinquishment. The topic areas revolve around geomechanical processes in coal and geotechnical stability, water in the saturated and unsaturated zone of coal and rehabilitated environments, identifying critical requirements for the design of (soil) covers, the performance of covers over time and their long-term integrity and stability.

Since 2021 I have been one of the Directors of the Future Regions Research Centre at Federation University. This centre has been formed to bring together environmental research knowledge and connect it with social sciences. As a regional university, Federation University is well placed to support the local communities, industries and governments, and Indigenous communities to build a more coherent link between the requirements of natural environments and the variety of land uses from societies and the contribution of environmental services to society.

Tell us about your project and what its primary goal is?

Our project investigates soil covers and their suitability to the environment at the brown coal mines in the Latrobe Valley, Victoria. The unique geology of the brown coal, having created coal seams of 150 m and more thickness with only narrow inter-seams, requires the development of covers that actually cover the resource itself at the batters of the excavation pits. A number of challenges are linked to securing the coal rock from being affected by the elements leading, e.g. to decreased batter or slope stability by fragmentation of the coal as a result of wetting and drying of the coal, ignition of coal either by spontaneous combustion or external sources like from bushfire, sufficient depth of a soil cover to retain moisture and suitable substrate to carry vegetation with a minimum plant cover density to prevent surface erosion. The objective of the current study is to assess the risk of vegetation being affected by severe drought events as it may be expected from climate change and the consequence for surface stability from a predicted change in precipitation events leading to fewer rainfall events of higher intensity.

What makes you so passionate about your project?

While I have been involved in a number of cover studies, this project is unique as it requires the direct management of a resource, which in most coal mining environments has actually been extracted. The challenge in this project is not only to quantify water flow through covers and its water balance as well as the sourcing or amendment of appropriate substrate to construct covers but also the response of coal to property changes over time.

How does being involved with CRC TiME help support your love of science?

CRC TiME provides the opportunity to present the learnings from this project to a wider group of end users and scientists affiliated with finding solutions to a similar problem. This project is enhancing our understanding of the performance of covers and what needs to be considered when designing a cover. Like with all covers, the starting point of its properties following construction is not a constant, and they change over time through processes in the substrate and soil evolution. The trajectory of change needs to be understood to be able to predict long-term performance and ensure a sustainable landform into the future.