US Office of Naval Research and the Australian Coast

It is an interesting question as to the extent the Australian Defence system makes use of academic literature, in particular that involving coastal research. When I was on the Faculty of Military Studies (UNSW) Duntroon in the 70s, I asked this question of Defence personnel and got very little response. It was as if we lived in a parallel universe. This was disappointing at the time as I had just spent several years undertaking field studies sponsored by the Geography Branch, US Office of Naval Research (ONR) in Washington.

ONR had programs that fostered academic research in a number of areas. The Geography Branch was interested in developing a broad understanding of coastal environments not just where US Forces may be engaged, but also where they could learn more about coastal processes, landforms and sediment systems in a more generic sense. So many US servicemen had died and infrastructure lost due to ignorance of coastal conditions during World War II. ONR had a long-standing contract with Louisiana State University, Coastal Studies Institute (CSI), to do field work in different environmental conditions. I was fortunate to be sent as a graduate student to Mexico and later South Carolina in the 60s. In 1971, as a Research Fellow at ANU, I joined an ONR/CSI sponsored team to work in the Ord estuary.

Australia offered the ONR through academics at CSI an opportunity to study a range of coastal settings with which staff and graduate students were not familiar. So much of their focus had been on the Mississippi Delta. In the early to mid-60s they were in a position to send personnel to foreign places. Professors Russell, McIntire, Howe and Sauer traversed the Western Australian coast to get a look at semi-arid, sub-tropical conditions and areas of high tidal range. Sauer published a paper in Australian Journal of Botany (v. 13, 1965; see also CSI Tech. Rpt. 26 A), while Russell and McIntire summarized their observations on tidal flats in CSI Tech. Rpt. 26 B in 1966 (also published as Coastal Studies Series 12, LSU Press). In 1964, three graduate students from LSU who were very familiar with deltaic sedimentation on the Gulf of Mexico were dispatched to the Burdekin Delta in Queensland; they published a brief paper in Bull. Geol. Soc. America in 1966 (v.77) also on saline tidal flats. This trip was an eye-opener for the three (Coleman, Gagliano and Smith) as they encountered for the first time very strong landward sand transport during flood tides.

All this work on high tide environments led to a project in the Ord estuary in 1971. Don Wright was the leader and was joined by Jim Coleman and myself. Most work was done during the dry season, however, I returned in the wet in early 1972. The project consisted of three parts: first, a study of processes of channel development in this high-tide-range environment (J. Geology, v. 81, 1973); second, an examination of mangrove ecology in this area (published in the J. Ecology in 1975); and third, a review of geomorphic variability of the coast of NW Australia from Darwin to the Ord (CSI Tech. Rpt. 129, 1973).

Filling knowledge gaps around the Australian coast has been something many of us have been undertaking over the past few decades. And it must go on. ONR showed how other countries are not just interested in our coast but also to learn from it. I do not know whether their work has been accessed by Australian Defence personnel, I doubt it. More recently I have learnt of a growing interest in military geography within Defence. This is a positive sign especially as we embrace the forces of the new climate era. I hope this will also mean a new era of cooperation between interested academics and Defence.


Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect Bruce Thom’s thoughts and reference where appropriately: (c) ACS, 2017, posted 27 August 2017, for correspondence about this blog post please email admin@australiancoastalsociety.org

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